Review of Gunnerkrigg Court, Volume 4: Materia (Gunnerkrigg Court #4) by Thomas Siddell

A continually surprising series. 

Meshing classical myth with original ideas, this kid-friendly series of light adventures and comical mishaps often stumbles into darker territory, heady themes, and far-reaching consequences. While I long for more maturity, it is nice to see rich character development throughout each volume. The players change subtly, and I doubt the level of gore, violence, or sensuality will ever rise above PG-13, but the nuances of the relationships and interconnectedness of the subplots are increasing. A few strands of the set-up remain a mystery, but hints toward our protagonists origins and the other students’ desires and powers begin to play a larger role. A slow burn, but satisfying, safe, and pleasant comic.

Review of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (Oz, #1) by L. Frank Baum

As whimsical and intriguing as the film. As timeless and humorous and charming. As off-kilter and unique. 

But can it sustain the delicate balance of childish wonder, nostalgia, and creepy subtext, the Alice and Wonderland dreaminess, for a dozen books? This splendid series has spawned a recognizable aesthetic, probably due to the subtly unnerving drawings printed in some additions. While I still enjoy the second film more than the first, will the second book manage to deepen the lore, or challenge the constrains of children’s literature in the same way? The artistic current of rococo sentimentality and memorable creature-design runs through countless films, establishing a gold standard for decades. As far as books go, Peter Pan-ish homages and similar forays into dreamland recur with frequency, contributing to the great, cosmic zeitgeist of anthropomorphic bedtime stories reaching back to the beginning of time.

Review of The Marvelous Land of Oz (Oz, #2) by L. Frank Baum

The darkly amusing saga continues in this slightly less consistent sequel to the classic children’s tale of Oz. 

We are back in the magical land, but without Dorothy and the frame story. Noticing quite a few differences between this and Return to Oz, the film, I can tell that they brought in material from the third book and left out less compelling parts from this one. I think the choice was good. This book is entertaining, diverting, and charming, but not quite classic. Tip, Mombi, Pumpkin head, the sawhorse, and Woggle-Bug amuse, confound, and contribute in surprising ways to the wayward adventure. The most compelling aspect of Baum’s imagination is making us imagine things and creatures that defy the brain’s logic, yet operate well within the world he’s created. There’s never a scientific explanation to bog down the narrative. Instead, magic reigns supreme, but the rules and riddles it brings make a twisted sort of sense.

Review of Ozma of Oz by L. Frank Baum

Very much in line with the film, Return to Oz, a personal favorite of mine.

Rife with weird objets d’art and dramatic situations void of any real danger. The underground fortress and faint-hearted exploration were reminiscent of Narnia, which is to say I was entertained and sometimes absorbed. It boils down to a rather simple but effective fantasy story, magical enough, if regarded through the uncircumspect eyes of childhood. I may continue through this infinitely nostalgic series, zipping through the audiobooks. The world effectively resides in my psyche now, so that I might visit Oz in my spare moments, only slightly distracted by the haphazard nature of this creative paradise.

Review of The Wayfarer by Zachary Kekac

The Wayfarer begins the way all of my favorite fantasy novels tend to: with a compelling world map that draws me into the world. 

While there is a learning curve for most world-building accomplishments like this one, I think Wayfarer’s is relatively enjoyable to climb.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect it possesses is its mellifluent writing style – one of the most mellifluent I’ve ever encountered. For some this is a plus, and for others, a minus. If you prefer straightforward writing like Brandon Sanderson – who has never once used figurative language – then this is going to seem granulated. But, for fans of Lord of the Rings and other descriptive works, with a solid grounding in the imaginative locales of an atypical fantasy and a firm grasp of its character’s psychology, it will be a treat.
The noticeable poetic rhythm is countered by frothing imagery. With speculation ranging from inscrutable to far-reaching, straddling the insane and the epic, there is much to admire in this work on a page-by-page basis. For one, eloquent and dramatic interior monologue and the aforementioned spectacular imagery – much of which emerges directly from the protagonist’s viewpoint. The Wayfarer is enigmatic and profound, seeking in a dark land the answers to his troublesome past.

The poetics, making use of many fantasy tropes to conjure a setting rife with atmospheric tension, is the breadwinner of this literary endeavor. At once a merging of memory and conjecture, I basked in the good word choice and surprising sentence structure which enriched the texture of the prose and enveloped me in swathes of dense literary sensation. The colorful, tight editing, and the cinematic aspect inherent in every scene kept me turning pages eagerly. Taverns and blasted landscapes, to the deepest depths of the mind, barrows, crypts, and more well-adorned environments are integrated into a living, breathing world.

Rich with world-specific vocabulary, with ample context to compensate for the careful reader’s benefit, I was reminded a bit of John Crowley in the whorls of language, shaping bizarre landscapes and molding the thoughts of an unconventional protagonist. It is a universe of ceaseless motion, sprinkled with well-described action sequences.

In the end, it is a remarkably consistent, off-kilter apocalyptic trip, with haunting vibes, marked by clever description and it dwells between a dream of a challenging world and the familiarity of our own. Light on the dialogue and heavy on the narration – when there is banter, it is cheeky. Oddly named side characters aplenty, a subtle humor often verging into a disturbing subtext. This book provides sentence-by-sentence delights even if the plot sometimes takes a backseat. A unique and fondly affecting read.

Review of Tekkon Kinkreet: Black and White by Taiyo Matsumoto

One of the few masterpieces of ‘realistic’ manga.

By which I mean it contains whimsical touches, flights of fancy, imagination, heart, and friendship without succumbing to any of the cheap thrills so often associated with this medium like giant robots. ghost hunters, or revealing costumes. A genuinely admirable and affecting work of art, molding a relatable and satirical atmosphere of mingled wacky comedy and disarming violence into a beautiful synthesis of love, disturbing cruelty, and concrete jungle adaptation.

Review of The Past Is Red by Catherynne M. Valente

A shortish novel from one of the top three most bleeding edge writers of fantasy in this day and age. 

I lump this author above most modern fantasy authors because of the range of her ideas and her psychological distaste for clichés. With a vast body of work already beneath her belt, her latest novelistic ventures have pushed the envelope all the way to the edge of reason and sanity. Like Cassandra Khaw, Valente hones each sentence into the type of firecracker that makes college writing students swoon. But compound this poetic aesthetic with bathetic regularity and it begins to feel like a literary enema, where the sentence structure produces a panoply of images and intricately spasming pyrotechnic wordplay, which can, at moments, lack subtext. I differentiate this style as “literary magazine polish,” as opposed to China Mieville’s functional imagery. In longer works, there are simply times when straightforward storytelling will engage me far more than your character’s clever and edgy thoughts, endlessly spewed on the page. Also present is scathing commentary, gross asides, and inane profanity. The book is steeped in social consciousness, dribbling quaint dismissals of humanity’s inner ineptitude. People are painted as demonic entities, plaguing the planet with their filthy minds and leprotic attitudes. Yet, our main character is unapologetically selfish, irreverently demonic, and sincerely unwashed. Par for the course with any dyed to the skin ecological dystopian tale. But any adult reader should realize most humans are more complex than the sum of their social media posts. Caricatures result from the opinion-dumps, and a lack of sympathy blossomed in my jaded mind.

Garbagetown, while vivid, is simply not possible. Who, in their right mind would name their town that, even if it were an accurate moniker? A lack of common sense pervades the satire. But this originates from a lack of seriousness, as in Monty Python. In this way, at least it is consistent. But that does not mean I like the details: the sanctification of Oscar the Grouch, for instance (would Sesame St. even be known in a post-apocalyptic setting a couple decades from now, and even if it were, the minor character serves as symbolic place-holder for a god the characters dismiss. This plays into the anarchist attitude of our main character, whose abuse is received and given with aplomb, verve, elan, and umph, but also ad nauseum.)

A consistent, absurdist memorable frolic through the cast-off dregs of product placement mentality, with an undercurrent of corporate despair. A haunting and aggravating jaunt through fecal favelas and morose angst.

Review of Small Town Problems by Chris Ritchey

Small Town Problems, from the title, might elicit expectations of a sitcom drama.

In a sense, you would not be entirely wrong. But at its heart, it is a fun, popcorn novel about people running into and responding to trouble, where their innate curiosity plays as big a part as their ingenuity. The characters strike me as realistic and most of their reactions contain various levels of predictability. It is unique among the first contact books I’ve read for containing less menace and more kooky oddities. This type of scenario hearkens back to Galaxy Quest and more Hollywood films than books. While the book is not overly ambitious, the author does inject the plot and style with a lot of personality.

The first ingredient is vivid description, and an intriguing opening. This short novel’s wacky aesthetic can only be compared to low-budget films of alien invasion scenarios. Twilight Zone-esque in execution, the small town atmosphere is pulled off marvelously. I am a big fan of American classic Golden Age of science fiction vibes which fewer books are going for nowadays, even with the success of Netflix shows banking off nostalgia. I picked up tones of Stranger Things, reminding me of ham radio farmers, long empty highways, fields, barns, guns, and aliens. Here are all the familiar trappings equipped with cinematic aplomb. We are given well-paced scenes that entertain and infuse the story with mystery, keeping us turning pages. The traces of humor in the first person perspective are everywhere evident, along with witty dialogue and quirky characters. A treat for conspiracy theorists and soft s-f enthusiasts alike. At its core, it explores the extraordinary alongside the mundane, and is an effective satire on the genre, while also being a spooky look at human relationships when faced with the unknown. I detected a bit of Twin Peaks in the preoccupation with character, the blase acceptance of the supernatural, and the relentless, albeit goofy humor. In the end you are left with an enjoyable and refreshing read. If you enjoy films like Eight Legged Freaks, you will feel right at home in this novel.

Review of Hettie and the Ghost by Becca De La Rosa

In this richly descriptive and atmospheric novel, I was pleased to find intricate sentence structure and mature characters. 

Many of its descriptions have an old-fashioned elegance. It is a nuanced ghost story with an intriguing premise, tackling central concepts of spiritualism, the afterlife, and growth. The language is always surprising and contributes to the cinematic scenes, which are ensconced in a setting of baroque splendor.

By and by, I found it to be book that exceeds expectations on multiple fronts, delivering realistic dialogue and fantastic descriptions, while incorporating much magical realism into a satisfying plot. The little details pile up, contributing to a sense of dread. The reader picks up cues from characters’ actions and speech, since the author does not rely on info dumps or long interior monologs. I was reminded time and again of Shirley Jackson, who masterfully weaved tales in a similar vein, capturing subtle changes in character and dark turns of fate without sacrificing the abundant dreamy texture of the prose. It is as much an exploration of the speculative world of spirits as it is an interior examination of the self. Our main characters’ scars run deep, and her world is fraught with unrelenting tension. The storytelling elements are impressive, working with the world building to construct a convincing ambiance. Words like reticule, crinoline, and laudanum crop up frequently. Make sure you are prepared for a slower pace, akin to twentieth century fiction, with an emphasis on eerie locales and creeping dread. I would not be surprised if the author went on to publish many excellent novels revolving around the supernatural, since she knows how to handle historical subjects and language with undeniable ease.

Review of Shadebringer by Grayson W. Hooper

Shadebringer begins with an inscrutable world map and intriguing chapter quotes.

The title led me to believe it would be a traditional fantasy work in the vein of Brandon Sanderson. That is not the case. Brent Weeks and other authors have a tendency to use titles like this to ease the reader into another world. On the contrary, the first part of the book reads more like a drama, acquainting the reader with the real world and the characters: familiar and realistic people, who spout off opinions and fill in their own backstories with well-orchestrated internal monolog and dialogue. The cinematic scope is impressive, though the action is interspersed with dramatic back-and-forth utilizing scenes reminiscent of films like Full Metal Jacket. Line-by-line humor helps guide us through the fast-paced description from the perspective of our jaded narrator.

The narrative jaunts through Vietnam, exploring exotic locales, filling the backdrop with luscious scenery and cheeky, foul-mouthed characters. Something happens on every page. Often the pacing ramps up to thriller levels. It describes a modern world rife with violence, tension, and political strife.
Our protagonist maintains the mentality of a typical jarhead, giving us an internal commentary replete with expletives, bolstered by his comrades, whose repartee is colorful and vivid, to say the least. “By the time I was twenty, I was built like a New England lighthouse,” is a prime example. Plenty of good lines that would translate well to a movie script are waiting for you in the humid atmosphere of this novel. The realistic portrayal of wartime aggravations, struggles of troops deep into their roles, and the strong awareness of period detail contribute much verisimilitude. Thankfully, the author sprinkles in figurative language and plentiful variety of sentence structure to keep the reader engaged, along with consistent imagery.

You get a strong sense of the hopelessness of the situation at times, and a good camaraderie between characters. There are a lot of names to keep track of and some jarring jump cuts, but the rhythm and pulse of the story is nothing if not convincing. It strikes me as a very accurate style of speech and attitude, judging from what I’ve gleaned from Hollywood, and real people – an approach which does not pull punches, and neither does it coddle us. This is gritty stuff, requiring an attention to nuance and offering a huge amount of intimate detail amid rich character development.

Recommended for lovers of military fiction, but be prepared for a discernible slide into a world that will challenge the imagination. If you like books taking place in the jungle or anything with non-stop action, you will also be right at home.

About 20% in, the tone diversifies, the world opens up, and we are offered a more balanced reading experience. The author’s descriptions begin to shine, but he does not sacrifice his signature quick-witted badinage. I actually welcomed the slower moments, the quiet instances of observation and speculation evolving from the dynamic twist in the setting.

In the end, it is a surprising page-turning with a unique plot.

Review of The Complete Multiple Warheads by Brandon Graham

It’s a shame that such magnificent artwork is undermined by amateurish writing.

The layouts and designs are reminiscent of Moebius, while the dialogue and plot are barely readable pulp, pun-infested nonsense. Plenty of good ideas, creatures, gadgets, and character potential beneath the immaturity, but it’s well-lathered with cringe-worthy speech bubbles. It is worth picking up to gawk at the artwork, but don’t expect depth.

Review of Awakening (The Commune’s Curse Book 1) by Lucy A. McLaren

In this new debut fantasy novel, promising a series to follow, adaptable child protagonists deal with past hardships in a refreshing way.

The conflict stems from a menacing society within the context of an intriguing fantasy world. Children play a key role in the world building of this novel at the center of which is a heartless cult bent on exploiting the inner potential of children. While this is far removed from our world, one gets the sense that if a few things were different, human beings could act and exploit one another in similar ways. It is probably a good thing that magical powers don’t come into play in our everyday lives.

The writing provides a constant tension engendered by the characters being continuously on the run. The onset of foreboding powers marks the turning point in their lives, but their relationships grow out of necessity as they navigate the treacherous situation in which they find themselves. Overall, the narrative is rich in detail and textured like the classics of fantasy. Any fan of Tolkien will appreciate McLaren’s solid grasp of design elements. The whole is tightly edited with quick-paced dialogue and description that does not overstay its welcome, often melding with the interior monolog. The author utilizes an immersive perspective and ample exposition to lay the groundwork of the conflict and atmosphere right off the bat. It is a dark young adult premise with a readable execution, and the author gives us plenty of room to explore her fascinating universe, which, over the course of the novel, begins to draw subtle parallels to the harrowing world in which we live.

I would have liked to see a little more humor or levity, but I think if that is not your main priority as a reader you should fare just fine with this somewhat bleak, but rewarding, read. Full of ominous juxtapositions of danger and palpable dread, it is a blending of familiar and foreign concepts, but it always retains a relatable pathos toward the main characters and their seemingly endless struggle through an unjust world. 

Review of The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling

“The Jungle book” is a fun collection of timeless stories worthy of their fame.

The movie brethren of this tale resemble the source material in only superficial ways. Mowgli only features in less than half of the book’s stories for one thing. However every story is interesting and connected in theme and tone. All of the stories revolve around animals, like you might’ve expected, and while each represents different regions throughout the animal kingdom, each story has its own laws the animals must abide by. But every animal has these constraints, which helps humanize the animals and connect the world the author creates. While the world building here is minimal it is tight and thoughtful, making the author’s creation vivid without overpowering the tales he tells.

The main draw of “The Jungle Book” is the writing and sheer delight of experiencing the adventures. The writing has aged only slightly (mainly in the dialogue) and is still a blast to read. The writing is balanced: having enough description to paint the picture without blotting out the picture manufactured by your own imagination. The action is also well-paced, interesting and not overbearing or gratuitous. The dialogue doesn’t differentiate between characters well but it is engaging and moves the stories along. All these aspects work like a well-trained symphony: the different instruments of pacing , dialogue, action, and deception sound exquisite when the story beats need them. And the stories may be simple but we would not have wanted them to be complicated.

There is little characterization or theme but the characters are good enough to hook us. You can find many themes herein, including man’s connection to nature, courage, and growing up, but this collection is more about fun than instruction. Still, engaging settings for a noble message.

Of course children and adults alike can enjoy the book for the wonderful detail the world and the storytelling.

Review of The Opposing Shore by Julien Gracq

While the descriptive passages are gorgeous, I tired of the narrative and the narrator about 2/3 of the way through.

My reading was hindered by some inconsistencies in the prose, which tended to ebb and flow, ranging from excellent evocation of dense imageries, conjured with immaculate confidence, to forced, teetering, cobbled-together dialogue sections between characters acting like wooden dummies.

I was compelled by the enigmatic atmosphere to keep going, and am willing to sample and read the author’s other productions at some point. I liked the writing style enough not to seek much else by way of pleasure from the text. I feel quite leisurely about this interest and may put off further peeks into his oeuvre. I’ve noticed that this book causes me to want to be extra specific about the sentences I’m using to describe it, possibly because the sensation of reading it instills in you a need to rely on too many long sentences, such that you begin to sound like you are not stating things in the most succinct way. But this sheer lack of concision contributes to the eerie mystique of the book. Maybe. The author prolonged the interior exploration of his fictional world through the use of dreamlike articulations, visions, and floods of figurative language. Antunes accomplishes much of the same thing, but manages to command more force with his characters and plot, whereas Gracq relies solely on aura and setting to house his indulgent detail.

There was less commitment to the warring city-states than I expected. Less commitment to the love interest than I anticipated. Less going on, fewer meaningful interactions amid a lot of aloof observation, contemplation and dwelling on the inner feelings aroused by a pleasing landscape, so difficult to encapsulate and yet, it remains fairly memorable. An uncategorizable, melancholy book too caught up in its technicolored backdrop to plumb past the two-dimensional. But what it manages to grasp, outside of its vessel-like characters, is a profound awareness of our ability to perceive the complexity of constituent descriptions.

Review of 2020 on Goodreads by Various

My reading status and accompanying thoughts at the end of 2020 are as follows:

Some mixed reading experiences this year. In the pursuit of a better reading year in 2021 I am not going to follow trends as much, or read as many reviews. My backlog of TBR grows as the future diminishes. Therefore, it is with discipline that I chip away at certain authors who have stood out to me as somehow closer to the ideal I seek in my frolic through the mounds of printed matter. I do not want GR to become a platform the only point of which is seeking confirmation for my specific tastes. My taste should be of little consequence, as should that of any other reviewer. I’ve put great faith in certain friends and professional reviewers in the past only to disagree with their conclusions repeatedly. What might work better, I think, is taking the result of a review as a summation of one reviewer’s processing of the reading experience. We are all sharing experiences here, and experiences of any kind are not meant to mirror one another. I may read hundreds of manga and a mix of classics and contemporary novels, but I don’t expect anyone to follow in my reading footsteps. This site is how I keep track of my own chaotic wandering through the microcosm of literature. It is not how I entice a band of loyal followers down the rabbit hole of my own whimsy-reading, nor how I might persuade them through endless argument that what I am doing with the few thousand hours of writing-reading time I have earned is meaningful to anyone but myself. Notating a book is one of the best ways to remember it. I thank Goodreads for providing a place to showcase my public thoughts on literature and to interact with people who enjoy this hardly navigable industry with me.

As I continue writing books, I have become consistently overwhelmed by the sheer number of new books flowing into the world. The writing of them appears to be as common as the reading of them. Currently at work on 3 novels myself, the reading I do does not always influence the writing that spurts from my fingertips. I have found a bit of influence in the sharing of my work with fellow authors this year, as well as the editing of others’ work. Surprising to me was the realization that I finished the reading of 12 novels in manuscript form this year, often scribbling notes in the margins for the benefit of the fledgling author, but also, in some cases, unbeknownst to said author, as if I were marking my path through some half-generated virtual world. The quality of these 12 novels ranged from first draft, unprintable, unreadable cliché-plagued desolation to literal masterpieces. Whether or not these books will ever see the outside of a few desk drawers, I am happy to have encountered and devoured them. I say this as I war against myself for the fact that I set aside this time when in reality the number of books is unconscionable and my time limited, so what business do I have accepting and even (with such gall) as to request unpublished novels from authors operating in the infinite theater of darkness which encompasses our paltry efforts – for to enter out of this darkness one author in a thousand must ascend so many delirious steps as with a heavy burden of ambition and pride, amid the constant disarray around him (or her). There is only one way I can answer. What real, valuable difference is there between what is obvious and what is astonishing? What can leaning too far into one extreme do to one’s conception of art?

Faulkner said that a writer should read everything, including trash. I can only assume that Faulkner read a certain amount of what he termed ‘trash.’ Yet, how amazing was Faulkner’s writing? Basically never suffering from illegitimate influence. If we are to consider that we probably read more in this day and age than people ever have since the beginning of mankind’s tenure upon this earth – what with all the digital script pummeling our brains for several hours per day seven days a week, combined with the work-related reading and the leisure reading, and the endless scrolls of script in every videogame, how many millions of pages do we consume, and how much of it should we label so ungenerously ‘trash?’

Reading Classics versus Contemporary –
I like to think there are 2 types of books. (There are more than 2, but I easily ignore the other types). The first variety are classics. These tend to be the most reliable reading, though they can take work. They tend to stretch the imagination, forcing us out of our contemporary bubble. These have persisted, rising like cream amid the sea of pulp to surmount the ages, often changing shape in subtle ways – for we always flex and massage the texts we read, in digesting them.

The second form, of course, is whatever is written today, or recently. Contemporary books can be fresh, delightful and incredibly strange. Often an author’s intentions are less clear, and they seem to explore some inner landscape or world more intimately more often than our forebears indulged in such impolite enterprises.

For my next year’s reading, I propose to balance my book-diet with a mix of both, but always keeping at the forefront that singular purpose: Escapism – for why else would I seek to read so far afield? One can just as easily escape into some flowery comic book as into a towering work of diamond-dense philosophy. It is more about training the mind to focus on those precepts of illusion to be found in even the most puerile pulp, common to all works of the imagination, which provide us with that unmeasurable ingredient, cousin to distraction, that quirky tinge of nostalgia or that pearl-laden treasure at the bottom of a great plummet into a book. That, my friend, is why I read.

Star-ratings – Let us not invest such arbitrary measurements with great meaning. I have given and received the full range of star assignments. In reality, one should always make up one’s own opinion about a work of art, rather than rely on any authority to tell them how to interpret it. Interpret my last statement however you wish. For you will, as we all do, texture the text with your own mind – for in reading, how much of what we are reading actually exists upon the stage of our intellect? I have come, at the close of this year, to appreciate subtext, including that mystical subtext which is not even suggested by the words on the page.

Finishing books.
I was amazed by how many books I failed to abandon this year. What is the virtue in continuing on with some difficult or unenjoyable book? That is another question I have struggled to answer. Is it not true that some of the best books contain passages of such impenetrable compaction that we are left on the outside? Is it not also true that a great number of beautiful books contain passages of utter, execrable twaddle? It is therefore a balancing act. One could read nothing but Tweets for an entire lifetime and never exhaust the feed. Where would one end up in that case? I find that in such situations, when I begin to sense the brink of that despair, which reminds me too often that I am human and flawed, that it is then I turn aside, regarding the future with a hopeful investment into my next few steps, back on the path of enjoying life, instead of contemplating its atomic structure with my clouded eyes.

The difference, for me, is to know when I am reading a story and when I am reading someone’s opinion about a story. The latter interests me little, since opinions are stories we tell ourselves about other stories. Get the story direct, I say.

Again, I am only thinking out loud. If you have read this far you probably know something about what I read this year. But let me leave you with my recommendations. Try them out if you care to glimpse the horizons I have most fondly remembered from 2020.

My favorite reads of the year: (‘Favorite’ does not imply that they are more or less skillfully written, only that I enjoyed them more)

Sayaka Murata – Earthlings
Smart Ovens for Lonely People – Elizabeth Tan
Untold Night and Day – Bae Suah
The Royal Family – William T. Vollmann
Laura Warholic – Alexander Theroux
Lord Valentine’s Castle – Robert Silverberg
The Shadow of the Torturer – Gene Wolfe
Antkind – Charlie Kaufman

There were many more I loved, but these were the most memorable.

I doubt I will participate in the ‘Reading Challenge’ for 2021. It is a stress-inducing nuisance to be told I am ‘one book behind schedule,’ or ‘two books ahead of schedule.’ How about I just read as much as I can, for the rest of the time I am given? I could easily fudge the numbers, play this site RPG-style, climbing the ranks of ‘most-well-read’ by marking every short story and half-consumed thing, like an accumulation of imaginary capital. How about instead I enjoy the full-bodied flavor of a single book, well-loved? If I only read half as many books next year, it will probably be because I read fewer flimsy, short books, in favor of vast journeys. Who knows? Check back with me in 2021, dear friend, and may you find whatever it is you’re looking for.

Review of Reflections of Destiny by Benzon Ray Barbin

One of the first things you’ll notice about this debut novel is the striking imagery.

While not always fantastical, it does not shy away from surprising and otherworldly moments.
The setting has a baroque atmospheric quality, with many points of reference on which the short scenes tend to hang. It deals with technology, warfare, combat, assassins, powers, weaponry, and romance. It employs quick-paced, short chapters to grip the reader in a vise of anticipation. The fast-moving scenes don’t dwell on a plot but rather moments, revealing bits of character and world building.

Making use of fabulous word choice, the author provides profuse visual details, concise dialogue, and page-by-page plot developments to keep you invested and turning pages. There is subtle world building like a scaffolding in the background of the story, bolstered by realistic dialogue and incorporating speculative and futuristic elements, combined to craft a seamless whole.
The reader is tasked to untangle the political climate based on the behavior of a government depicted in telling ways, and one can easy draw parallels to modern times.

Furthermore, it is well-edited, and bereft of the curse of internal monologue which plagues many books of today. It demands participation from the reader, due to the jump cuts and alternating perspective, you will have to piece together the elements as you go along. It contains a mixture of the familiar and the strange. Logistics go hand in hand with character development. At bottom it explores personal relationships, with traces of humor and plenty of conspiracies branching into a complex sociology.
The intricately woven plot and delightful personal details add an intimate layer to the story, without faltering into conventionality.
A recommended read.

Review of The Outlands (The Outlands Saga #1) by Tyler Edwards

I was pleasantly surprised by The Outlands. 

The book has movement, action, and fast pacing. The writing rarely slows down, offering a new layer or concept page by page. A labyrinthine world unfolds, depicting the ins and outs of thievery. As orphans in Dios, our main characters are subservient to an abominable caste system, yoked by societal limitations. I was put in mind of Mad Max, Fist of the North Star, and Golden Age science fiction. However, our hero is more of an Everyman, an underdog, which renders the setting all the more ominous. Under the harsh ruler, the supreme leader, the higher ups espouse the philosophy of “harmony in sameness,” which sets the stage for rich world building. By removing diversity they preserve order and eliminate division. Of course, this only benefits the lucky few.

All the while, the narration is swift, relaying flashbacks and drawing from pertinent clues organically within the environment. We are treated to a tour of slums and teeming markets, gang activity and chase scenes, typically ornamented with baroque architecture and Third World accoutrements. The author mixes high technology within his feudal system. Thankfully, brief touches of humor enliven the dystopian aura that results from the strenuous trials of our protagonist within the pervasive aura of despair.

Subtle commentary is present in satirical allusions to current real world situations and problems, but the allusions avoid a mocking tone, employing a worst case scenario texture to the whole story. Government hypocrisy runs rampant, starving, desperate masses eke out an inadequate existence. It has been done before, but since the focus in so close to the main character’s perspective, I rarely grew bored of the lush description or the dialogue, which works overtime as world building. Life is a game of survival for these folks, and it is clear every step of the way that they get by with grit and resilience. I was reminded of the Lightbringer series in that respect.

Surrounding the despotic city is the uninhabitable Outlands. Of course the characters are motivated by relatable dreams of freedom toward this distant glimmer of difference, freedom or death. The dialogue conveys their individual personality, comradeship, and position within the system. By the end, I was most immersed by the ceaseless flow of action, while the subtext contemplated the resonance of loss, the value of hope, the consequences of struggle and the preponderance of apocalyptic history, the resulting fallout from mass conflict and moral death which imbued the literary terra firma.

With colorful characters and a page-turning plot, the necessary Underworld, the search for purpose and meaning, the reader will encounter familiar tropes, but realize this is only the beginning of a larger work. The pursuit of skepticism, questioning the world order, and all the rest serves to establish the tone, rebellious in spirit, for the intriguing set up. On its surface it communicates a constant sense of danger and suspense, with plenty of power and heart to sustain a grand narrative.

Review of Smoke and Mirrors: Short Fiction and Illusions by Neil Gaiman

Started out strong but ended up inconsistent. 

Whereas the much-touted Gene Wolfe produced unpredictable story collections of genre-bending, unconventional tales of varied length culled from a wide selection of magazines over decades, IMO any of Wolfe’s collections are better than the totality of Gaiman’s output. It is not just that this collection is inconsistent, but the stories lack the consistency of good stories. There are plenty of moments when cleverness is evident, but far more where cleverness is all-too-absent. The author knows how to put a sentence together, but some of the sentences he inserts, some of the images, some of the stories themselves, read like what I’d expect from Stephen King. We’re talking King after about 400 pages. When he’s writing on autopilot. Such as in the story of a clueless American who stumbles into a pub in England and talks about Lovecraft with cultists (and that’s all that happens). Or in the one where a man purchases the services of an exterminator [to exterminate every human on Earth? A graphically naked troll under a bridge might surprise you in one story, but the logic behind what the troll does will likely confuse you. A quaint, Pythonesque grail story: A skillful demonstration of ye olde writing style but absurd and inadequately delineated – not just in how the world of the story operates, but in the lack of character motivations. If you turn your brain off, it works. A little poem here or there about Santa Claus and werewolves. Little boys in showers laughing at each others’ willies. Story after story made me say “so what” internally. Some of them made me gag. To be fair I enjoyed parts of the screenwriter story. I suspect this was an excision from an early draft of American Gods. It combined a nostalgic aura with a few good quips and an appreciation for bygone values. But the repetitions and meandering could’ve been edited out. Most of the stories wanted a little honing. I still think, as a writer, he is more careful and calculated than Stephen King, but King seems more humble to me, willing to admit that what he is producing is not literary, but pulp. These are simply my feelings. The legions of fans are justification enough for such work, but in this review I’ll try to limit myself to what I’d want to know if I was about to jump into this sizable collection. The essences of several stories were intriguing. Usually the ending would reveal piss in the soup. The structural integrity of these narratives are fragile. Without adequate justification, the far-flung ideas come off as mere exercises instead of viable microcosms. Silverberg’s Majipoor Chronicles had a similar cobbled-together mystique. You can fly through a crappy Silverberg book, but Gaiman demands time, reads kind of slow. The pacing is glacial.

The Introduction did not help me enjoy the stories. I don’t need to know how he lit upon the ideas for each story, how he expertly weaves together the elements and tropes and allusions, according to the theories he’s expounded in every interview, Master Class, and Introduction as if he invented the medium. If he wouldn’t mention how he was best buds with Gene Wolfe so often I wouldn’t be tempted to compare Gaiman’s watered-down storytelling to The Grandmaster Big Daddy Baby-Faced Emperor of Fantasy World Building.

Review of Third Winter’s War (Seventh Realm, #3) by M.L. Little

This third book continues in the Seventh Realm to bring us more of what every reader is likely to adore from the first two including a large cast of colorful characters and an intriguing plot with expert world building. 

It begins where the last book left off and shapes into a culminating encapsulation of the themes the series tackles on both a social and intimate, personal scale.

In some ways making use of a traditional fantasy aesthetic, M. L. Little employs many aspects of unique world building and ample humor to bolster her elegant writing style and form a tale both heart-warming and heart-rending by turns. Elowyn, Gabriel, and the menagerie of other characters, some of whom are family, friends, and part of a circle of influential people, both strangers and creatures of every description, have at times reminded me of moments from the Hobbit, where merry companions endeavor to face a darkness that threatens to overturn their gleefully imagined world.

Taking place in the heart of an icy climate, this book earns its title. Atmospheric details swathe the reader in a chilly aura while a strong tension pervades the plot as the story unfolds. The war offers an ominous backdrop to our main characters’ travels while the reader is carried along by their delightful dialogue, which never dwells too much on the negative situations, but pulls from the scenario a sense of purpose and lithe whimsy, a resurgent positivity that falters but returns to triumph as the characters extricate themselves from trouble, political entanglements, and very real dangers. This charming dialogue also develops their plans and marks their adaptation to their situations. All this to say that the tone grew dark when necessary but never lost sight of its lighthearted underpinnings. Rebels locked in a struggle with a destructive government, and the many-layers beyond the personal pursuit of freedom and growth, contribute to the pervading expression at the center of this epic narrative, which is the longing for an elegiac past. While it depicts a fraught, unhallowed present, the protagonists fight for a brighter future, striving to right the past’s wrongs and start their young lives on a promising course. That to me, is the appeal and essence of high fantasy.

While the world often underestimates the characters we follow, we continually witness their courage, resolve, and teamwork. This series demonstrates why it is better to let your characters make decisions rather than allowing plot twists to have their way with them. They make things happen, and so become, in their myriad ways, living people in our minds, deeper sometimes than the dreams we invented on the playroom floor with our action figures. Literary journeys are usually about finding ourselves vicariously, living through heroic accounts and strengthening this faculty to envision our own worth in relation to our peers. But at bottom, fiction is about finding the good in a dark world and fighting for it against all odds. Because we live in a dark (or fallen) world and must fight to live. Life is a gift. And thankfully, this book reminded me of the joy there is in living, in fighting, and even, in creating the microcosms that sustain our intellectual maturity, which, no matter how adult we seem, is rooted in the experience of our youth, and foremost, its appreciation. For that and many other reasons, I enjoyed my tenancy in this magical realm. And the frigid wastelands and dripping caves, as wars resonate emotional tides, and social ramifications, I cheered on the protagonists as they navigated the slippery present for the sake of the future.

This is a fast-paced finale with unexpected turns of events to defy convention and leave a lasting impression, with memorable characters, both multi-faceted and realistic, which contemplates youth, innocence, experience, wisdom, pain, loss, perseverance, hope, loyalty, and family.

Review of The Witches of Eastwick by John Updike

Why Updike?
This book was more libidinous than a high school boy’s locker room.

But that’s unfair. I’m sure not all locker rooms are this bad.
Hyperdetailed. Meandering. The man could write description. But, in so many cases he dwells on images we can do without. Plot and characters go out the window. We get long passages about the exact process of making a sandwich, a few pages for each little maneuver of these grotesquely high-definition bodies moving through space.

Occasionally, you run across a book that makes you doubt a writer’s sanity. You could lose faith in an author this way, or you could keep rummaging through their oeuvre searching for the Jekyll-Hyde, good-bad, failure-triumphs until a very tainted opinion coalesces. I thought editors were supposed to point out obvious, heinous literary crimes, no matter how frillily the writer dressed them up. Maybe, after a certain point of popularity, you can just get away with anything.

Review of A Phantom’s Vengeance by Marco Mizzi

Starting off, you will notice impressive world maps. I always spend way too much time reading and gazing at fantasy world maps at the beginnings of books with other-world settings.

Then, throughout my reading I am constantly waiting for specific locations on the maps to be mentioned in the text. When some locations are left out, as often happens in multi-book series, I am left in a state of perpetual angst until I learn more about the unexplored territories, all of which are entirely imaginary. If an author has the gall to include locations which are never mentioned in the text at all, then I must commend them on their world building. The map suddenly becomes a piece of a much larger world map, like the infinite foggy, unrendered outlines in RPG video games.

I would describe the world building here as top-notch. In some senses, making use of a classic revenge plot, The Phantom’s Vengeance does play with the reader’s expectations at specific key points in the story. At bottom it epitomizes an appreciation for the intricacies of the Sword and Sorcery genre. The Golden Age of that genre has passed, though if it felt too canonical it would have lacked the modern grit. What I deem modern grit is a touch of blood splatter darkening the pages, a few well-placed instances of profanity, and a relatable main character who possesses more than 0.3 dimensions. That is, I look for emotional development within the confines of the plot, where the character does things, makes decisions, and then lives with the decisions, often with a measurable amount of discomfort. It’s not just a bit of killing, repenting, betraying and stabbing – though there is plenty of that, don’t get me wrong – you will recognize and be surprised by a significant level of intricacy, of layers, easily discernible beneath the grit. I am referring to subtext, without which many a Hollywoodized novel hath been forgotten (by me).

Add to this well-honed, pulse-elevating action scenes. But not too many. If there had been more, I might have been tempted to skip a few. But I wasn’t. The first chapter, to be critical, contains a dream sequence, which technique I condemn. But the scene passes quickly, and does its job. Soon enough, we’ve our feet planted in an alternate universe, chilling in its baroque verisimilitudes.

All of it is rich with atmospheric details. The author has a tendency to start each chapter section off with a zoom in effect. Bringing up the light, and the trees, the season and the gloaming. I suffer from this need to establish the set-pieces in my own writing and recognize an imagistic approach when I see one. That is not to say I disapprove. Wholeheartedly, I loved most, if not all, of the environmental content, frilled and extrapolated as it is. With traces of Medieval implements gleaming in the background and plentiful shadows rife with ominous concealment.

To experience this tale is to enter a dark and dread-filled world where a blade is as necessary as water and life is a constant struggle against physical threats. That sentence could describe almost any dark fantasy, but would it be a dark fantasy if it couldn’t? Battlefields, swamps, and ravaged towns, overseen by jaded gods, a foreign land lies embroiled in a complex network of internecine feuds, divisions, and tenuous alliances. Maintaining the status quo of a viable livelihood necessitates a war against the forces which impede on every side, fueling an existence indistinguishable from a nightmare. Such is the plight of our hero.

The military movements side by side with the domestic details, offer a breath between actiony episodes. The high fantasy tropes are employed with aplomb, without reserve, toward a focused structure, and within a breathtaking setting. Religion, warfare, comradeship, family, hope, and vengeance, all take their turns on the stage. The hunt, the nomadic way of life, and the soldier’s duties, all fall within our main character’s purview. The perspective is accompanied by a yearning for an escape from the daily carnage toward an elegiac ideal we might recognize as the concept of peace within any given fantastic realm. This dreamy reverie is the incarnation of our deep longing for the mystery and allure of childhood and might be detected in most unabashedly fantastical works since Tolkien. Put simply, an exotic nostalgia is evoked thereby.

Warhorses clad in gleaming black steel, a land forged in violence, rooted in slaughter, but not bereft of the essential characteristics of historical human striving. Loyalty, endurance, conspiracy, treason, rebellion, overlapping expansive locales, interwoven with world building nuggets, well-paced without too much internal monologue, but enough relaxed expositions between the quick scenes that often kick the plot into high gear.

I am reminded in some respects of Way of Kings, due to its depiction of a war, its characters trapped in a cycle of survival. The sword and shield feed Danio’s family. The economies, political structures, laws, and religions are simply window dressing to the core tale. But what a splendid array.

To top it off we’re given a hint of romance, a polytheistic cosmogony, a vivid conjuration of an imagined time and place, convincing in its sophisticated portrayal of warriors and its aesthetic consistency. It is composed of familiar elements but compelling in the way it congeals into a story with universal appeal.

This book ponders the consequences of revenge, and in the psychological dimensions of the characters succeeds in establishing a believable and immersive experience capable of transporting the most jaded escapist among us. The exterior and interior navigation of our protagonist should interest the literary, who will enjoy the central moral dilemma. While the adventurous will savor the well-choreographed battles. The author demonstrates a gift for balanced storytelling, and has produced a first book suitable for fans of Game of Thrones.

Review of The Shivering Ground & Other Stories by Sara Barkat

In this generous and surprising collection, enigmatic mysteries intrude upon an elegiac setting. 

A precocious protagonist discovers a dislocation from the every day. Media intrudes in multifarious forms, and inanimate objects or nature blend with the human elements in a well-orchestrated interplay of fantasy and gothic revelations.
They seethe with cognitive dissonance and pique with magical realism.
Written by an illustrator who brought to life the classic: “The Yellow Wallpaper”. I notice some eerie stylings, and influence from the dark short story which must have meant so much to this author. One of the primary concerns of many stories appears to be cinematic, or atmospheric, though they intrigue on the sentence level, seducing with their rich imagery and unexpected subtexts. They are tightly edited, deeply strange, bizarre, and uncanny all while striking me as vaguely familiar, like places visited in a dream. With literary references peeking from behind the scenes, at times domestic, and at others otherworldly, they will live long in memory.

“Now the trees beyond the window, like mourners, bent beneath the fury of the storm.” This quote will give you a taste of the suggestive figurative language suffusing the narratives. Enigmatic beasts,
exquisite use of rare and esoteric vocabulary, a vivid conjuring of unexpected wonders – all these things properly fit into what you will find here, this menagerie of quirky stories, but no descriptor can properly convey the breathless subtlety lurking under every line. Prepare for a dark descent into fantastically skewed worlds fraught with visions derived from an abundant understanding of dreamy fantasy. They are clever, inventive, and haunting. The author even tries out the second person perspective in the third story, and makes use of a host of other literary techniques to add flair and flavor to the already resplendent writing. While a couple of the stories might ring as inconclusive, the majority of them are shiver-inducing, if not for their terror-strewn settings, then for their hypodermic-sharp symbolism. The unnerving humanness of mannikins, for instance, has never failed to creep me out. The inner whorls of the rose, the trickle of moonlight through a cracked window, faintly uttered sounds amid the gathering shadows. If you appreciate and delight in these things, then this collection will tickle your senses, set your imagination working like a live wire, jumpstart your lucid dreams and leave you reeling.

Review of The Phoenix Rises (Beyond Imagination, #1) by P. Benjamin Mains

Epitomizing an appreciation for superhero culture, this novel launches the reader into a wacky adventure amid a casual narrative voice, and approachable, easy to follow prose. 

I recommend you sink into the first person perspective and let the cinematic quality of the novel spirit you away. The pop culture references come fast and hard, as you navigate the fantastical and realistic elements of the plot, which are both well integrated into the main character’s consciousness.

The author even plants easter eggs for more advanced nerds to uncover. In its thoroughly modern setting, the protagonist embarks on a nostalgia-suffused adventure through urban woes. A phrenetic pace is sustained, rife with splendid homages. Furthermore, it ponders how to recapture the joy and excitement of childhood when real life wears you away, which is something most adults can relate to.

It’s action-packed pages will keep you invested and remind you why so many of us hold our dreams sacred – unruly as they may be. This book reforms the classical tropes to be found throughout many recognizable precursors and transforms them into a fresh take on the superhero genre.

For worshippers of escapism, what more can you ask? It has a similar mystique or feel as Ready Player One, but does not suffer from over-explanation like that blockbuster. See if you can hold on, while the staggering number of intersecting concepts culled from the annals of popular franchises slide in and out of the narrative.

At bottom finding the hero inside of everyone involves a journey and a fundamental understanding of the limitless possibilities offered by those shining examples we have immortalized. And those pesky Zom-borgs keep popping up. While it maintains some video game aesthetics, as our hero musters the courage to face an unusual destiny, the whole works as a flowing visual story, studded with some familiar faces.

It is a creative, engrossing, and thoroughly enjoyable story, communicating the fidelity of adolescent absorption, as well as the authenticity of a connoisseur’s commentary on the vast universes enmeshing our public consumerist psyches.

It leaves one a little bit wiser about how to understand the self through the interpretation and filtering of the immense troves of mainstream art and media to which our civilization is heir.

Review of Victorian Songlight: The Birthings of Magic & Mystery by Kathy Martone

The first thing the reader will notice about this novel is the rich texture of the setting.

This thought-provoking tale is set in the Ozark Mountains right off the bat, providing a luscious ambiance for the plot. It is a setting equipped with the authentic feel of its time and place, old furniture and full of Victorian touches. The author explores local folklore, legends and community mysteries, including ample historical context to add layers of verisimilitude and realism to her story. The characters engage with spiritual connections echoing through the past, leaving the reader to ponder their greater significance as the story unfolds.

The author clearly put research and knowledge to use, while retaining a playful and reliable pathos throughout. Through the eyes of our main character, we experience the joys of discovering a wilderness more alive than our mundane urban existence. Furthermore, she incorporates vivid imagery, tons of descriptive detail, magic and romance to keep you turning pages. The writing has a slightly poetic and psychedelic bent which is offset by many references to intimate details within its characters’ lives, as she showcases their diverse backgrounds and differing viewpoints.

Coupled with realistic dialogue and historical flair the short chapters add a quick pace through the unpredictable tale of superstition, and psychic abilities intertwined with a moving drama.

You can perceive an appreciation for childhood wonderment and a sense of a past full of mystery and imaginative potential, while exposing the reader to Eastern learning, contrasted with the Western life depicted in Kate’s personal life. The daily details ground the narrative among its supernatural elements.
When Kate embarks on a new sort of life, the reader is given the rewarding experience of following along on her spiritual journey. The novel also tackles the processing of childhood traumas and the affect early life has on our development, bringing into play a strong understanding of human psychology and New Age insight amid a classic tale of redemption and growth.

Review of Shadow Of The Wicked by Douglas W.T. Smith

Douglas Smith’s Shadow of the Wicked takes place within a realm called Three Kingdoms.

Firstly, I was highly impressed with the cover design and map design, and the perfect formatting of the book. I believe this will appeal to fans of Game of Thrones or Wheel of Time, though I am not extremely well-versed in the genre. It does radiate an ‘epic’ tone in my opinion, but that could be the result of the larger themes at play and the sense that we are beginning in medias res. Instead of the usual ‘tour of the town’ approach in the initial chapter, we are presented with brief interlocking scenes in the third person which serve to construct the main threads of the book. The tone and behavior of the characters is established right away and the reactions to their respective situations provide the central premise.


The tale is told with fast-paced, tightly edited, modern fantasy, medieval-style writing, encompassing a Witcher-esque atmosphere, fraught with bandits and sorcerers and lots of ale-drinking. You will meet relatable characters with dark pasts and intertwined fates who tell a compelling story from the dual perspectives as the two protagonists. This setup depicts a conflict between brothers, set against a tempestuous political climate. Struggling through tortures and elaborate restrictions, it’s the character interaction which drives the plot, through which devices the worldbuilding is elaborated and adequate background is filled in amid the action.


I always enjoy exploring a unique and fascinating world, and the world building supplied here certainly qualifies. The variety and texture of the world is conveyed through detailed description that does not weigh the narrative down. It is entertaining and written in the manner of a quick-reading essential puzzle piece to a larger story. As a series, the other books will have to sustain a high level of tension and cinematic approach to storytelling, so that they do not seem watered down by comparison. There were fewer info dumps and internal monologues than I expected, which contributed to my enjoyment and the ease of reading. In terms of communication of ideas, this novella accomplishes its goals admirably, and will leave most readers craving further adventures.


I hope that the magick system is more thoroughly explained in the next installment, to add another fleshed-out layer to the story. But the author has begun a promising literary project.

GoodReads Giveaway

Undertones is now available for a limited time as a Goodreads Giveaway. Enter for your chance to win a copy. Click Here:

Dane was a reliable guitarist until he got addicted to ants. Now he’s just a giant anteater with an abysmal grade point average. On a date with lead singer, Serena, they witness a gruesome incident. Waking up in the hospital, Dane realizes Serena’s missing. Going to the police only gets him a felony for possession of ants. Now, forced to lick the habit while he tracks down Serena, he’s going to need a little help from the band.

Investigating familiar watering holes (while stopping for one or two drinks) leads him to an underground criminal organization. Is it a coincidence that a feline fatale attempts to recruit him for the mob? Should he expose the dirty underbelly of their society, putting Serena and his band on the line, or try to take them down from the inside? Either way, it’s going to take more than the Komodo dragon on clarinet.

UNDERTONES

Our Noir / Fantasy novel is now available.

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Also Available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble!

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new flash fiction

Check out our flash fiction in Havok on June 12th, 2019 and vote for it!

June 12, 2019

4th Quarterly Review 2017

My short story “Cygnus” was featured in the 4th Quarterly Review of Bewildering Stories for 2017.

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3rd Quarterly Review

My story, “Eve in the Belly of the Whale” was included in the 2017 3rd Quarterly Review of Bewildering Stories. Check it out:

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