Tag Archives: Literature

The Fisherman’s Nightmare

You will find my latest entry into Chuck Wendig’s short story challenge (the one from last Friday) here. I’m linking it instead of putting it in a post, because this sucker is kinda long (there wasn’t a wordcount limit on last week’s challenge, and I might have gotten a little carried away.)

It was a lot of fun writing this story, but because it came right down to the wire, I didn’t get the opportunity to go over it as thoroughly as I would have liked looking for typos. Hopefully I will be able to come back to it, and do a proper edit someday soon. Until then…enjoy.

Bizzaro Book Review: The Kingdom Beyond the Waves by Stephen Hunt

You know that movie, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind where Jim Carry has his memory of a bad relationship erased? Only as he travels backward through his memories he realizes that there were some genuinely good times that came before the bad, and that those times were worth enduring the bad for?

Oh you haven’t seen that one yet? Um…spoilers?

Anyway, that’s exactly how reading The Kingdom Beyond the Waves was. In the end it left a bad taste in my mouth, but thinking back over the whole experience there were some genuinely wonderful things to be found.

The book’s strength is in it’s plot and structure. As a writer still grappling with good structure myself, reading this book was something of an education. Each chapter raises the stakes to a new level in such a compelling manner that you find yourself wondering how the author could possibly top it.

The writing is…there. It’s not great, but it’s not bad either. Hunt uses words like a framer uses wood. It doesn’t have to be pretty. It just has to hold the house up. And in a sense his minimalist approach to prose serves the story well. Once you let yourself become enveloped in the plot the words don’t distract from it.

Of course possibly the greatest strength of the book is the sheer force of creativity brought to bear in creating a world with a thousand miriad wonders. This book has dragon things, steam powered self-aware robots, a hive-mind forest, and…well I won’t go on for sake of time, but trust me: there’s more.

The problems arise in the latter parts of the book. After spending more than four hundred pages on one quest, the protaganists goals are completely reversed. Worse yet, one character who’s delightfully ambiguous moral position made him one of my favourites, is turned into a cartoonish villian with the speed of flipping a switch. Because of these issues I was scarely able to enjoy the climactic third act at all, which is a shame, because, as I said before, the vast majority of this book was excellent.

Let this be a lesson to all of you writers out there. Endings matter. A lot.

Craft a compelling story, but tack on an unsatisfying ending and you’re going to end up with disappointed readers.

Ultimately, The Kingdom Beyond the Waves was good. I don’t regret reading it. As a writer I found it held valuable lessons for me, both positive and negative. As a reader I really enjoyed the story and the fantastic world Mr. Hunt created from the spare parts of a hundred other mythologies. But then there’s that ending.

I won’t make any definitive recommendations here. Instead I’ll just say that if this sounds like the kind of book you might enjoy you probably will. If not, then give it a pass.

The Viral View

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that most Friday’s I do a book review. Basically this review involves me talking about whatever I happen to have just finished reading at the time.

But lately I’ve been thinking about reviews a lot. Most people would look at a review of a book or a movie as a simple examination of the works strengths and weaknesses, a condensed rundown to give the reader some idea of whether or not they might like this particular book or movie.

But lately I’ve started to think of reviews as something else: viruses.

Okay, there’s no need to back away like that, and…whoa, where did that straight-jacket come from. Have you been carrying that with you the whole time?

I’m not crazy. Well, not with this anyway. Just hear me out.

Reviews are often tagged as being “spoiler free”. This means that the reviewer has not included any information that would “spoil” the readers enjoyment of the work being reviewed. But is any review, truly spoiler free?

Because I don’t know about the rest of you, but when I watch a movie or read a book after having read a review of that book I’m watching for the things the reviewer pointed out.

Weak third act structure? Yep.

Poorly developed characters? Check that one off the list.

Cunning use of white space? Got it.

Except those ideas aren’t my ideas. They’re not my opinions. I’ve been infected with the reviewer’s point of view.

It’s possible I might have made those same assesments on my own, but now I’ll never know for sure. Because I let myself be infected with the virus.

In truth this idea applies to far more than just movie reviews. We interact with others on a daily basis, taking recommendations, sharing opinions, transfering information. When you get right down to it none of the ideas in our heads belong to us. They’ve all come from somewhere external.

Immanuel Kant hypothesized that ideas like time and space existed “a priori” outside of external influence, because, he reasoned, thinking would be impossible without them. But with all due respect to Mr. Kant, he’s never lived in a universe without time. Simply because neither he nor any of us is capable of imagining how thought might occur in such place does not mean that such a thing is impossible.

In fact the idea for this very blog post, came from listening to someone else talking about how they tried to watch movies without any preconceptions and work out wether they liked it for themselves.

You might think that I’m leading up to saying that I’m going to discontinue the Bizzaro Book Review and let you all discover your own books without preconceptions.

But if you think that, then you obviously don’t know me that well. Because seriously? I have a chance to infect all of your brains with my ideas? Get me a ticket on that train.

Call up the CDC and tell them there’s a madman in Florida cooking up idea bugs in his garage. Make sure you scream as loudly as you can.

And don’t mind the men with the special jacket with the long sleeves. They’re only there to help.

Bizzaro Book Review: Bye Bye Baby by Allan Guthrie

It’s my belief that, in a way, every story is a mystery. In a romance the mystery is, “How will our romantic leads end up together?” In an adventure the mystery is, “How will the hero get out of this alive?” In general we keep reading because we want to know how that mystery is going to be resolved.

Allan Guthrie’s book short story novelette Bye Bye Baby is a little different. In Bye Bye Baby the mystery is “Which one of these mysteries is real?” Bye Bye Baby is a mystery about mysteries.

When the story opens like a fairly standard mystery story: a police officer is called upon to investigate the disappearance of a young boy. Only it quickly becomes apparent that the real issue at hand isn’t the missing boy at all. Or is it?

This is a book with twists and turns out the wazoo, and I don’t want to spoil a single one of them for you. In fact there are so many twists that the narrative almost begins to feel cluttered. Almost. Guthrie does a fantastic job of keeping his narrative threads straight, meaning that while the mystery itself it confusing, the story is perfectly clear.

Guthrie’s style is simple and understated. Slightly too understated for my tastes actually, but not so much that it detracted from my enjoyment of the story. He delivers his story almost completely ungarnished, inviting us to savour the natural flavours within.

But the characters are what make this book truly remarkable. They are the glue that holds the story together. The mystery by itself with all of its improbable complexities might appear contrived and stale if not for the strikingly believable characters that inhabit it. This is not a long story, and there are a number of players that take the stage for mere moments before being whisked away again by the next plot point, but somehow none of them feel contrived or flat in any way. They all shine through as believable and complete people whose part in the story is only a fragment of a larger more complete life.

All in all Bye Bye Baby grabbed me from the start and didn’t let go. It managed the trick of being both cerebral and intense, which is why I am awarding it [&] out of [%] stars.

You can (and should) buy it here for the paltry price of one dollar.

Bizzaro Book Review: The Devil in Chains by Adam Christopher

Today’s book review comes with something of a caveat. I started doing this weekly feature in order to showcase unusual types of stories, as well as quality self published works. However when I read The Devil in Chains by Adam Christopher I was faced with something of a dilemma.

The problem is this. I do not love this book. That’s not a snide way of saying that I hate it. It’s just a simple statement of fact. The problem is I’m a little squeamish about being critical of self published works. After all, these authors don’t have the luxury of a fat paycheck to cushion the blow of criticism. I’ve felt the sting of criticism myself and I know how badly it stings.

I could take the “If you don’t have anything nice to say don’t say anything at all,” way out, but that feels somehow disingenuous to me. The thing is, there were some things I did quite like about this book, and I want to be able to tell both the good and bad, and let you decide for yourselves. So here goes.

Starting with the bad.

If I had to sum up my main problem with this book in one word it would be this: flat.

The main character for instance seems to be something of a puppet, a mannequin being moved through the various plot points on a track the author had set up for him. He is given a history within the story, but only as an explanation for his knowledge of the dark arts. There is one moment when the protagonist experiences a flashback to a darker time of war and death, but it is a tiny island of color in a still gray sea.

The book is narrated in a very Victorian style of prose which is beautifully executed. However the detached style serves to distance the reader from the plot. For instance when the protagonist is fighting his way through the dark cave to face the eponymous devil in chains he is set upon by a great swarm of insects. While the idea of such an attack is terrifying enough, the calm manner in which it is related feels completely at odds with the true terror of the situation. When reading this passage I found myself wanting to hear the air thrumming with the wings of the cicadas. I wanted to feel a thousand insectile feet crawling across my skin. But instead I was left with a bare description of the facts.

The book is set in a fairly standard steampunk universe which is rendered well enough, but in by end I was asking myself, “Why?” The setting did not appear to be truly central to the plot in any way. In a way it detracted from the terror one might feel if such a story were told in a more familiar and believable setting.

It also had me scratching my head a bit. The story is set in an alternate universe in the year 2001. However every aspect of the culture is a carbon copy of the Victorian era. This left me asking myself, “How is it that the culture could have stagnated for two hundred years while so many technological advances were being made?” I contend that it would have been far more fascinating to see classic steampunk technology set in a world with a society similar to our own.

Now, for the good.

This is not a bad book. I am sure that statement may sound dubious after reading the previous paragraphs, but it is completely true. The author’s command of his prose is both masterful and polished. Despite my problems with the detached feel of the Victorian style prose, the fact that the author was able to slip into that mode so completely is a testament to his skill.

Likewise, the story was enjoyable on the whole. In spite of my earlier complaints about flat characterization, I found the actual events of the story to be completely engrossing. In particular I found the supernatural antagonist’s ability to create an army of facsimiles from the bodies of the newly dead villagers to be terrifying on a very primal level. One of these facsimiles, the Lambert-thing, may be one of the most unsettling villains I have yet encountered in literature.

In summary, in spite of its failings, The Devil in Chains is a truly unique variation on classic horror themes and it deserves to be recognized as such. At only 25,000 words it is a fast and engaging read. And since it is available for free download from the folks over at Smashwords, the price in unbeatable.

I give it ^ of ! stars. Go and check it out and decide its merits for yourself.

Bizarro Book Review: Censoring an Iranian Love Story by Shahriar Mandanipour

I’ve talked before about the urge to buy a book based on nothing more than its cover. I keep telling myself that a good cover does not automatically guarantee that the book will be good, but time and time again I am drawn in by clever fonts and evocative graphics only to discover that the actual content of the book is vapid and boring. And yet, on occasion, my superficial method of choosing literature has served me well.

Take for instance the cover of a strange and fascinating work by Shahriar Mandanipour, Censoring an Iranian Love Story. The image generates a kind of visual magnetism that draws the reader closer until he cannot help but pick it up, and brings to mind something both strange and surreal, oppression and censorship mingled with something altogether more bizarre and wonderful. And that is exactly what the book delivers.

Within the pages of Censoring an Iranian Love Story you will find not one story, but two. The first is a simple tale of love between a Iranian man and woman desperately trying to find their way to each other in a society where romance is taboo. The second follows the writer of the first story, a harried man trying to craft a meaningful tale without incurring the wrath of totalitarian government censors. But as the book progresses the two tales mingle in such a way that the lines between them become blurred into obscurity. The writer often enters the substory to push his characters in one direction or another, but as he delves further into his dark and twisted labyrinth of words he finds himself pursued by a dark figure which has taken form from the pages of the story and materialized in the real world. Gradually the story looses focus on what is real and what is fiction, leaving behind a patina of surreality that colors the narrative in ways both strange and wonderful.

The book plants itself firmly in the soil of postmodernism with entire sections of text presented with strikethroughs followed by the writer explaining at great length why he could not include that part of the story. Yet for all of its strangeness Censoring and Iranian Love Story somehow makes a connection that resonates with the deepest levels of the human soul.

The blossoming love between the romantic leads feels real and powerful, and their struggle to find a way to be with each other in spite of societal taboos closely mirrors the author’s struggle to tell their story without running afoul of the all-powerful censors. Its beauty grows out of its tragedy and struggle, and it paints a vivid picture of people trying to be human in an inhuman society.

Though the title of the book makes reference to a love story, this is nothing like your mother’s romance novels. Given the strange structure of the book you would think the romance might be swallowed up entirely. But even though the writer’s frequent interjections about Iranian society and the difficulties of dealing with censorship take up more than half the book, the romance blooming between the two young people still manages to seem touching and real, and as a result of the restraints of Iranian society there is a sense of suppressed passion throughout the book which often seems to be bursting to tear itself free from the dead pages and become something more than fiction.

In addition to all of its more lofty accomplishments Censoring an Iranian Love Story is a fascinating look into Muslim culture today. It manages to be deeply critical of the excesses of the oppression that exists in Iran without becoming an overbearing diatribe.  In American society where too few people truly understand the mindset and culture of the people living in Muslim countries, this book offers as clear a window into their world as you might ever hope to find.

The final verdict? This book isn’t for everyone. If you’re allergic to so-called “gimmicks” then give this book a wide berth; there are gimmicks aplenty here. But if you’re looking for a book that stretches the bounds of fiction and tells a wonderful and moving story in the process then Censoring an Iranian Love Story is a book you need to check out. You may be confused, but you won’t be disappointed.

I give it @ out of # stars.*

*No I’m not going to explain my rating system.  This is the Bizzaro Book Review. Things get weird around here. Deal with it.

[I’m looking to do one of these reviews every Friday, and I’m fully open to suggestions and requests. I only require that the book be weird and that it be good. The second one is slightly optional. Also, I’d love to review more self-published and indie-published fiction so if you can point me in the direction of quality work by undiscovered authors I’d love to check it out.]

On the Diagnosis and Treatment of Acute Librophilia

This year I resolved to read one book for every week of the year.  Not every book had to be read within a week’s time but they all had to be finished before the end of the year.  Today I am proud to report that as of this morning I have completed my goal.  Below is a list of all the books I finished this year listed in the order in which I read them.

1. Dark House by I. A. R. Wylie

2. The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester

3. History in English Words by Owen Barfield

4. Field of Dishonor by David Weber

5. Of Grammatology by Jacques Derrida

6. Poetic Diction by Owen Barfield

7. The Terror by Dan Simmons

8. Flag in Exile by David Weber

9. Towards Morning by I. A. R. Wylie

10. The Somnambulist by Jonathan Barnes

11. Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde

12. Demon Theory by Stephen Graham Jones

13. The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemmingway

14. The Spellmans Strike Again by Lisa Lutz

15. World War Z by Max Brooks

16. Beasts of New York by Jon Evans

17. One Good Turn by Witold Rybcynski

18. Saving the Appearances by Owen Barfield

19. Writing Blunders and How to Avoid Them by Alfred Noble

20. Group Theory in the Bedroom by Brian Hayes

21. The Magicians by Lev Grossman

22. The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde

23. The Strange Case of Mortimer Fenley by Louis Tracey

24. Blindsight by Peter Watts

25. The Confession by Mary R. Rinehart

26. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding by David Hume

27. The Art of Making Money by Jason Kersten

28. Echo Park by Micheal Connelly

29. The Stuff of Thought by Stephen Pinker

30. In Enemy Hands by David Weber

31. Horns by Joe Hill

32. Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carol

33. A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

34. The Fifth Elephant by Terry Pratchett

35. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

36. When Graveyards Yawn by G. Wells Taylor

37. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

38. Caught in the Web of Words by K. M. Elizabeth Murray

39. Censoring an Iranian Love Story by Shahriar Mandanipour

40. I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett

41. The Truth by Terry Pratchett

42. John Dies at the End by David Wong

43. Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin

44. The Variant Effect by G. Wells Taylor

45. The Machine of Death by Various Authors

46. The Bog Monster of Booker Creek by Wayne Miller

47. Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt

48. Probability Angels by Joseph Devon

49. Buddy Holly is Alive and Well on Ganymede by Bradley Denton

50. Menagerie by G. Wells Taylor

51. Ignore Everybody by Hugh MacLeod

52. Interesting Times by Terry Pratchett

I’m not sure if I’ll do something like this again next year.  As satisfying as it is to have read all those books, there were some times when the pressure to keep up with my goal took away from the enjoyment of reading.  Having said that, I’m really glad I completed my resolution.  Looking back on all I’ve accomplished helps me to remember how valuable one year really can be.