“Cansville” – by Alan Flurry

Cover ImageAs the Cansville’s newest creative director, can Toby write the play that will pump life back into the old theatre and its town? Or is the Cansville merely an opportunity for Toby to break away from the icons of his past and enter into the world of adulthood?

There’s not really much to the plot of Cansville. Our protagonist wins a play-writing prize, earning an opportunity to write and direct a new work at the struggling Cansville theatre. Although he meets an eclectic group of theatre folk along the way, I always felt that they were just props – not just for the author to tell the story, but for the main character himself. All his interactions felt like he was staging a drama – a play about writing a play.

That said, I enjoyed the quirky characters and the actual process of creation. It was often amusing and some of the strategies our hero adopted to visualise mood and intent on stage were quite fascinating. And in the meantime, there’s some love and lust interests, an aborted sexual encounter and a mountain of internal dialogue.

However, in the end, it’s important to understand that the main character is not so much interested in the success of his play from an audience’s perspective; it is the process that this play represents which is significant to him. This was made abundantly clear to me by the author’s choice of conclusion. I think many readers might feel a little let down by the ending, but once I digested it a little, I realised that the author was actually doing me a favour. He had removed what could have been a distraction from my view so that I could more clearly perceive his intention.

There is only one real character in this story – our hero, Toby. The entire story is his attempt to enter adulthood, to break his ties with his barn-like home and his dependency on his cousin with which he shared it. I believe his ambitions are spelled out in the very first paragraph of the book:

The flightless usurper stalked about the yard, unsure but mindful of what would soon befall. If Toby can imagine anything, it’s the abundance of himself just outside the room of his teenage years, a war chest in progress that he couldn’t wait for but to be over. But the epoch would need to sprout wings, succeed, create a sufficiently destructive storm, even just to begin.

I feel like I understood Toby, but I found him to be a rather delusional character, destined to fail in his attempt to grow. Instead of synthesising the world around him and internalising what it tried to teach him, he threw all of his hopes for development into his creation and consequently, spent most of the novel missing opportunities.

It didn’t surprise me to see that the final touch to his play was to come full circle, shooting an arrow into a wall. He remains the same undeveloped youth longing to grow up but not really understanding how, his attempt as staged as his play.

There’s no doubt about it, the author knows how to turn a phrase. His prose borders on the poetic and some of the allusions and metaphors are beautiful. However, strangely enough, this strength was a weakness to me as a reader.

I had to work hard to grasp his meaning, at times making the journey more painful than I thought it needed to be. I sometimes ran into a string of paragraphs that I felt were echoing the same thought. What is challenging once, is only painful in redundancy.

I just felt that the story could have been explored powerfully and poetically, with more clarity and less words. This could be saying more about me than about the author and I’ll accept that criticism, but without an objective truth, I can only offer my opinion. I felt that reading this book became more of a chore as it progressed, despite any appreciation I gained for the theme and for the author’s very obvious talent with prose.

I think in a different situation, I might have enjoyed this book more. It might have benefited from multiple reads and a focused book club discussion. It was clearly a literary work and perhaps giving it more attention than I had time for could have brought out the best it had to offer.

Maybe, like Toby, I just missed my opportunity to grow.

Rating: 3/5

Price at the time of review: $5.99 US

Available: Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Sony, Kobo, Diesel, iTunes and more…

Author site: http://www.alanflurry.com/
GoodReads page: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/13570159-cansville

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“Pale Queen’s Courtyard” – by Marcin Wrona

Cover ImageThe Hounds have picked up a scent and this time it might bring them face-to-face with the Pale Queen.

Previously, I have reviewed Marcin Wrona’s novel The Whitechapel Gambit, a steam/clockpunk offering with an imaginative setting (check my review here). With Pale Queen’s Courtyard, the author has again created a rich and imaginative world in which to set a fantasy tale of intrigue, magic and adventure.

The world is based on ancient Mesopotamia. Impressive cities, multiple cultures and gods, the conflict between politics and religion and a string of different conquerors shaping and reshaping civilisation create the backdrop for this story.

The action takes place in Ekka, one of the conquered empires and one in which the people have bargained with their aggressors to outlaw one of the religions – that of the Pale Queen, goddess of magic and dark arts.

There are elements of this world-building that sometimes make it difficult for the reader to understand immediately what the narrator or character is referring to. Unfamiliar references to passages of time, the moon and the sun, for example, were initially confusing. However, the author resists the temptation to give the reader an essay on what he has created. Instead, comprehension grows as the story progresses.

When Leonine, the minstrel and thief, has to use his powers to steal an artefact for his employer, he knows he is risking discovery from the notorious Merezadesh Hounds. Thus starts a chase that takes the reader across the kingdom of Ekka, a pursuit that leads the religious zealots of Merezad from chasing a simple thief to hunting a young girl of dangerous power.

As Leonine becomes the reluctant protector of the girl, he discovers that the Merezadesh Hunt is not the only party interested in her. His employer commissions his services to find her for an unknown purpose and the thief finds himself in the middle of a game he doesn’t understand – fleeing the Hunt that wishes to sacrifice his companion, Illasin, to their god and manoeuvring around his shady colleagues.

I was taken with the storyline. It had an abundance of cruelty and violence, hypocrisy, deceit and scheming, politics and religion and, of course, magic and the supernatural. I particularly liked how Leonine’s power manifested itself through song; it added a flair to the scenes in which it was invoked. Additionally, I liked that the Merezad oppressors persecuted those of power while secretly using that power for its own purposes.

My only real issue was that the ending seemed a little hurried. I would have liked to see the plot surrounding the titled Pale Queen to have been extended or at least, not dealt with so decisively.

Leonine, the thief, is not the only major character in this novel and the story is told from three different points of view.

Leonine knows his power marks him for death, and it already caused the execution of his family in his prior life as a minstrel. His past makes him mercenary, secretive and untrusting. However, over the course of the novel the reader sees the gradual erosion of his callous façade after the introduction of Illasin into his protection. Over the course of the novel he opens up about his past and starts to come to terms with what he has been responsible for.

Kamvar is a different case study as one of the devout members of the Hunt from Mezerad. His is a life of service and honour. Over the course of the novel the reader witnesses the pressure applied to his once firm faith in the harsh light of reality.

And lastly, Illasin, a young girl with burgeoning power, has been cast out by her father, the High Priest and is attempting to find a life for herself.

Of the three characters, I liked Illasin’s portrayal the least as she often demonstrated a much higher level of sophistication for a ten year old than I thought was plausible. Whereas Kamvar was my favourite narrator as I like watching zealotry crumble in the face of common sense and a desire for true justice.

The prose is satisfying and although I had a problem with the voice used for Illasin, there was little else I could complain about. The story was not riddled with word misuse or typos; it flowed well and was often quite poetic. I have no doubt that this novel is of a publishable standard.

The author has written a trio of books set in the same world and they are all vaguely interconnected but standalone works. As the setting itself has particularly impressed me, this is good news and I will slot the other two novels in my reading list.

After my second stint with this author, I can happily recommend him to fantasy lovers.

Rating: 4/5

Price at the time of review: $2.99 US

Available: Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Sony, Kobo, Diesel, iTunes and more…

Author site: http://marcinwrona.ca/wordpress/
GoodReads page: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/11239637-pale-queen-s-courtyard

Posted in 4, Fantasy, Novel, Reviews | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

“Shift” – by Hugh Howey

Cover ImageFirst we uncovered the secret behind the Silo – the secret that explains the present. But what will we find if we dig further? What will be revealed when we go back to the start of it all?

Shift is the second book in the Silo trilogy and the prequel to Wool, a best-selling novel that I reviewed very favourably in 2012, (click here for my review). Where Wool landed us in a post-apocalyptic present and slowly revealed a devastating reality, Shift takes us back to the pre-apocalyptic past and replays the start of an horrific dynasty.

The novel is divided into three parts – or “shifts”, spanning hundreds of years. Our key shift worker is Troy and we follow him as he acclimatises to life in the Silo and his gradual understanding of who he is and how he is. The apocalypse has passed.

Interspersed with our introduction to Troy is the revelation of how the apocalypse came to be. Having read Wool, this was a back-story I was very interested in. Threats, paranoia and politics feature as expected, but also some new technology is introduced. It’s this piece of technology that starts to give shape to the entire trilogy, and it’s at this point I realised the author needed to step backwards in order to move forwards.

But our review of pre-apocalyptic history doesn’t reveal all of the secrets to be found in this novel. There are “plans within plans” that gradually surface over the course of the three shifts. Some cast a new light on events and phenomena encountered in the previous book, while others help to set up the premise for the final book of the trilogy.

Not satisfied in merely fleshing out a background to the idea of the Silo, the author also relates the stories that lead up to and even run parallel to the story of Wool. To me, this was the most satisfying element of the novel. It gave the original story more life and more excitement when played out from a fresh perspective. While reading the third shift, I was experiencing that familiar excitement and awe that gripped me during the first novel.

I wasn’t completely impressed with the choices the author made in constructing this post-apocalyptic world. The technology introduced was interesting, but how it was used didn’t always gel with me. Additionally, the setting of the stage for the final book was almost too obvious. I’m sure there will be some exciting revelations to come, but I can already see the path quite clearly which perhaps robs the next novel of a few early reveals.

Reservations aside, the risk the author took to relate interlocking stories with the first novel showed some courage. It was quite possible for the attempt to have actually lessened the value of the story told in Wool. However, in my mind, the effort enhances rather than detracts, weaving gracefully and seamlessly between the lines of the first story.

Troy is definitely the main character and luckily, a very worthwhile one. I really enjoyed the experience of seeing the Silo through his eyes and walking the corridors in his shoes. I’m always impressed when an author chooses to give the protagonist a few shades of grey, and Troy presented an interesting study. Vulnerability blends with determination; pragmatism with idealism. And not all acts and choices seem humane.

The supporting cast are not really fleshed out in their own right as we see them primarily through the eyes of Troy. However, one of the aspects of the novel that I enjoyed is the idea that the “baddies” are not actually evil. I felt the previous novel hinted at this and Shift takes this a step further. The actors all demonstrate both selfishness and a brand of altruism along with a willingness to do what is required for what they believe to be right. Perhaps this is one of the reasons I’ve been so impressed with the world that the author has created. I find that instead of pointing my finger in blame, I end up wondering how I would cope with that kind of knowledge, that responsibility. At the end of the novel, I don’t necessarily feel that Troy’s decisions are righteous, just that they will change the path originally set.

The writing is fluid and capable, which in my second experience with this author was fully expected; I would have been disappointed if it proved otherwise. While I wouldn’t call the effort poetry in prose, it achieves exactly what it needs to achieve without flourish, but also without fault.

Even acknowledging the few qualms I have with plot choices, I am sold, sold, sold on the world Hugh Howey has created. It is terrifying, riddled with moral ambiguity and mirrors current reality more than its exaggerated vision initially suggests. I’ll be there for the third novel and I already have the rest of his catalogue in my sights.

Rating: 4.5/5

Price at the time of review: $5.99 US

Available: Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Sony, Kobo, Diesel, iTunes and more…

Author site: http://www.hughhowey.com/
GoodReads page: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/17306293-shift-omnibus-edition

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“The Last Bad Job” – by Colin Dodds

Cover ImageA suicide cult nearing its fate, a reporter tumbling towards self-destruction and a world spinning towards its end. When the dominoes start falling and mayhem reigns, who will be left to laugh at the result?

There’s only a few things that need to be understood about the plot in The Last Bad Job. A reporter is sent by a magazine to cover a suspected suicide cult. When things become dangerous, he escapes, hides out, and then everything is turned upside down.

Along the way we experience sex, drugs, more sex and then more drugs and a bizarre pseudo-religious epiphany in a supermarket. This is followed by chaos, punctuated by death, destruction and the unlikely elevation of a deranged cult leader to that of major prophet, his throning an accident of perfect timing.

The author has chosen not to enact an apocalypse, but all apocalypses, an aim as ambitious as it is ludicrous. So if a kaleidoscope of destruction is likely to leave you with motion sickness, this may not be the book for you.

For myself, I found the plot to be largely enjoyable, although I usually find it more difficult to enjoy absurdism in novels. Between the cult and chaos there is a rather long period of good old fashion self-destruction, which I was beginning to find a bit tedious. Luckily, I was saved by the end of the world.

Although we bump into many interesting characters along the way, our intrepid and nameless reporter is the main show. He is the synthesiser of all that we encounter, and perhaps the lesson.

I love how the author gives the reader an already broken character. For a few chapters he keeps his head barely above water, but under the slightest stress he returns to a kind of self-obliteration. I’ve heard it said that human wreckage is ripe for religious conversion, but somehow our nameless hero remains completely hedonistic. His immersion in the cult he investigates is only as deep as its sexual promiscuity. At a point of early danger, the feel of new white cotton briefs become a panacea for his fear. He hides from his predicament in a cesspool of alcohol, narcotics and meaningless sex. And his only religiously ecstatic moment exists in a bizarre delusion that equates consumerism with universal love.

So what happens to the worldly when the world is taken away? This is what I found quite interesting about our hero. When chaos takes the place of order, he simplifies drastically. Suddenly a companion becomes the only goal he has. We witness a demonstration of just how much he is willing to drink of the world only to turn his back on it – not towards religion, or spirituality, or some “meaning”, but rather towards simple existence.

Although there are so many quotable passages and a main character who seems to be transitioning through states as the story progresses, I’m not so sure I could prescribe a meaning behind the story.

The author uses the apocalypse much like Bulgakov’s Behemoth uses the primus; perhaps not because of any inherent meaning, but simply because it can burn things. And so we watch the author burn the world, not as a serious ritualistic statement, but more as a prank. It’s difficult not to giggle even as characters tell their horrific stories, the death and destruction nullified by the absurdity of the context.

Whether the author is making a statement about apocalypse, religion or about finding meaning in life, I may be hesitant to make a claim. However, I was happy to warm my hands with the bonfire he created and chuckle at the world’s misfortunes.

It’s a bit difficult for me to firmly establish who should and should not read this book. I think it suits mischievous readers, those not put off by an absurd plot and those who can peer into the face of apocalypse and laugh. Having said that, I’m not necessarily that type of reader myself, but I still managed to get enjoyment out of The Last Bad Job.

One thing I can share is that I don’t think I’ll ever look at an apocalypse the same way. Then again, maybe that was the point.

Rating: 3.5/5

Price at the time of review: $3.99 US

Available: Amazon, Barnes and Noble

Author site: http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/1094257.Colin_Dodds
GoodReads page: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/16086782-the-last-bad-job

Posted in 3.5, Humour, Novel, Reviews | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

“Slaves of God” – by Brian Rappatta

Cover ImageTravis is fading away – literally. He feels alone in his predicament and is scared of the hungers it has awakened within him. His condition is not a secret; someone is coming for him.

Slaves of God is an interesting idea. Part horror story, part coming-of-age, it tracks the flight of two teenage boys across the country from a determined killer. Travis is a seventeen year old who has started to discover he is victim of a strange condition where he starts to disappear. The condition is accompanied by some unwholesome more-than-sexual appetites directed at fellow classmates. Peter is an orphan residing in a home. He is intelligent but a loner – damaged by an encounter with a killer years before.

The opening chapter of the book was well constructed; a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a brazen act of violence and a casual departure. The scene certainly grabbed my attention and put me on my guard for an exciting read. The mystery surrounding Travis’ illness promised a journey down a dark road and I was interested to see how Peter was going to fit into the central story. Basically, I liked how the author set the story up and was eager to see where he would take it. Unfortunately the story didn’t really live up to the promise of the opening chapters.

Firstly, I had a problem with the consistency of characterisations throughout the novel. The issue was most evident in the portrayal of Father Death. At first, we experience a very calculated and cold killer. As the story progressed, we experienced more of his background and understood his “vocation” a bit better, but his mission was tainted by his sympathies. He couldn’t forget the human side even as his resolve was unwavering. But at some point, this seemed to be discarded and there was a cruelty and ruthlessness apparent which didn’t gel. If a thought process had been provided to show a transition of states perhaps it wouldn’t have seen so disjointed, but for my part, I just felt that the character had become a jigsaw puzzle whose pieces did not actually fit together – like his earlier aversion to nursing homes because they reminded him of hospitals, later discarded by a glee in carrying out an execution in a hospital.

Peter was not immune to inconsistencies in characterisation. In particular, we experience an intense shyness Peter has in showering with other boys. He showers earlier or later to try to avoid sharing the facilities with other residents of the home. All of this is somehow forgotten later in the story as he strips down in a public restroom in front of Travis to bathe himself. These kinds of inconsistencies suggest to me that although the characters were important to the author in creating the story, he didn’t really get to know and understand them.

While consistency of characterisation within each character was an issue to me, the voice each character lent to the narrative was a bit too homogeneous. Again Father Death and Peter featured, most evident in their reference to people and places. An example that remained in my mind was the references to small country towns. Both characters used terms such as “shitsplat” or “buttcrack” as descriptives. Perhaps if the attitudes and terms used weren’t so distinctive it wouldn’t have been a point of focus for me. As it was, I started to think that the author had momentarily forgotten that these were two very different characters. And while mentioning these small towns, it was jarring that the imaginary town of Bippy seemed to transport itself between Iowa and Nebraska during the story.

A small consistency issue with a town’s location was not seriously detrimental. However, as the narrative progressed, the situations themselves became more absurd. Serious injuries are suffered and although the author can’t seem to decide whether these injuries are broken bones or fractures, oscillating between both descriptions as if there were no difference, the actors continue their stunt work hampered but still able. It’s bizarre to be made aware of someone’s fractured limbs and then read of them jumping into a car and speeding down a road. It’s not like the author forgets these injuries exist, we’re reminded of blinding pain and almost losing consciousness – and yet the action continues.

There was a real direction to this story, an aim. When this was revealed it was a bit difficult to understand its feasibility. It was, at best, a stress on my suspension of disbelief. But, absurdity builds on absurdity. While Father Death takes himself out of the story, Travis introduces strange metaphysical discoveries that I suppose I could gloss over in an impatience to discover the darkness behind the killer, alluded to but never revealed. However, revelation brought not satisfaction, merely acute disbelief. Motivations dribble like nonsense from various characters, the finale not aligning logically with any aspect of the story preceding it.

Overall, it’s hard to give any kind of positive assessment other than the fact that there was a basic idea or premise that I thought quite interesting, a fantastic opening chapter and competent prose. But that isn’t enough for me in this case. Whether characters were expected to be of one dimension or three, I expected some kind of consistency and the plot really needed to make some kind of sense. Without that, the enjoyment I might have experienced watching the coming of age of Travis and Peter and the ill-fated trajectory of Father Death didn’t actualise.

Rating: 2/5

Price at the time of review: $4.99 US

Available: Amazon, Smashwords, Kobo, Barnes and Noble, Sony

Author site: http://www.brianrappatta.com/
GoodReads page: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/10396592-slaves-of-god

Posted in 2, Horror, Novel, Reviews | Tagged , | 2 Comments

A Woolly Encounter

Is that the time? I better hotfoot it if I’m going to make it to the store before the action is over and I miss my opportunity.

A thorough showering later, I stood before my dresser and puzzled over what to wear. Formal was out of the question, but business casual might make an appropriate impression – and I really should shave…

What am I doing? I’m planning this like a dinner date – am I looking for romance at the bookstore? No, I’m hoping to catch a few seconds with Hugh Howey as he tours the few remaining bookstores around Melbourne signing copies of his books Wool and Shift. I’ll get to this encounter a little later, but let me pause for a moment and consider.

I guess I’m considered a voracious reader by some standards, although I’m knowledgeable enough to understand my reading exploits pale in comparison to some others. I have my favourite authors and there are quite a few, but as I look at the zero hands required to tally up the times I have endeavoured to meet these authors or even to discover that they are in town, I start to tease at Hugh’s visit. Why should this author inspire action where others have not even brought about curiosity?

I think my response is related to my perceptions of the fiction market. Only a couple of years ago, I would have called this a market of books. The author, for me, remained very much words printed on the cover; a way to group a selection of books to maximise my reading pleasure. I read many books during that “era” that still sit at the top of my exclusive shelf of favourites so I could hardly call myself regretful. However, my perceptions have altered, my first e-reader purchase, the catalyst. My eyes now see the fiction market as authors who write stories. I was well behind the curve on that one, so don’t imagine I have any delusions to the contrary. Interestingly, this is an internal metamorphosis I had already gone through with music and software development years before. The fact that it took so long for me to discover the same truths about the world of fiction is testament to my lack of evolutionary prowess.

So how does a market of people differ from a market of books? For me, the answer is self-evident. More than ever before, authors are coming out from behind their work to commune with their readers. Maybe that’s just good business sense in this new digital market with a glut of content and drastically increased competition for an audience that could not possibly be increasing in linear proportion. Then again, maybe authors always wanted this connection, and the increasing ease of communicating through social media platforms and blogs has provided the means. There could be multiple reasons and I don’t presume to have my finger on this pulse, but the impression seems to be that author/readership communities are much more prevalent and more immediate than ever before.

Hugh Howey is an example of how this evolutionary market might work well. He is very much a human being, one who seems to enjoy connecting with his audience as human beings. He doesn’t engage in tirades against those who might exploit his work. He won’t let casual theft of his work result in any action that might disadvantage those who choose to support him. He encourages the creativity of his reader community by publishing their own art on his site and even endorsing derivative works of fiction. So does all this “heart of gold” activity leave him poor and loved? Well, I guess a self-pubbed author being able to fly over to Australia to sign books as a result of his control-retained-print-only publishing deal with a major publishing house pretty much answers that question. Of course, being able to write great stories that people want to read isn’t going to hurt his prospects either.

I have trouble imagining a publisher caring for an author the way a reader might. No publisher is going to have the reach of a dedicated set of readers around the world who will further the aims of that author without any compensation other than being able to read the author’s stories. How can a publisher hope to compete with that? The answer is that they can’t. So authors engaging with readers seems like a pretty savvy thing to do as Hugh’s success in the industry demonstrates pretty well.

So this is all very well, but Hugh’s success doesn’t make me want to meet him any more than Stephen King’s does. It did provide me with today’s opportunity for which I’m grateful, but success doesn’t make me want to shake another’s hand. What compelled me is possibly a feeling of equality. This doesn’t mean that I feel capable of writing a New York Times best seller. But it does mean that the writing and the reading is starting to feel a bit more like a partnership, and why wouldn’t you want to meet a business partner, someone with whom you have a relationship? I would think it was a natural inclination. And nothing in Hugh’s words or actions dismisses the notion.

And so there I was. Hugh arrived a little late with his publicist and I was a little late as well – we actually arrived at the same time. He jumped immediately into signing books left aside for him and I waited quietly wondering how I could introduce myself without interrupting him. The problem was solved by Hugh himself when he noticed me standing nearby and the introduction was made. He remembered me which was nice (or very smoothly done if you’re a natural cynic), and we chatted a little. It was fairly harmless – we didn’t delve into the meaning of life and I didn’t fall on my knees and pledge eternal devotion. Both outcomes would have been ludicrous and I have no talent for hero worship. However, although I would certainly have liked to have coffee or a meal and get to know Hugh further, I left satisfied that we had connected for a few moments, politely and respectfully. Perhaps I’ll get my dinner date on a future visit to Australia – after the publication of Dust? If so, I’ll definitely shave.

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“Under the Looking Glass” – by Alisa Tangredi

Cover ImageThere is a crime. Of that we are certain. But we are not so sure of the place and time. Follow Maura through the looking glass and down the rabbit hole as we try to piece together reality from fantasy.

Under the Looking Glass is essentially a dramatic mystery that reveals itself slowly through the unreal imaginings or memories of Maura Reyes after a home invasion upsets her life. The condition of her husband is not fully known and the fate of her dog, unstated but seemingly dire. What follows is a particularly disjointed set of scenes that are played out between herself and several characters including her husband, her psychiatrist, a psychologist and two homicide detectives.

Understanding the images was like making my way through a mirror maze with reflections of the main character staring back at me at every turn. Slightly shifting variations of the same scene were repeated, while I tried to intuit the truth behind the narrative. What happened to her husband? Where and when is she? And why is she spending so much time on a fantastical ocean liner? Has she lost her mind?

The enigma of Maura Reyes, her past and present, slowly unravels under the weight of discordant images – a kind of subconscious interrogation, led by a white rabbit, on a Wonderland cruise and on the other side of looking glass under which she lies.

Interestingly, as the main character finally starts climbing out of the rabbit hole, the reader is pushed in. After my own fall, as reality crept insidiously towards me, I realised that up was down and what was dark had only become darker. On my side of the glass, I could do nothing but look on helplessly as my sympathies ricocheted like deflected bullets. I felt used; but in a good way.

There really isn’t much in the way of character development in this story – even for the main character herself. The story is more a cerebral exercise designed to leave us disoriented until the truth hits us like a hammer. If you really must engage with characters to enjoy a story, perhaps this will not be for you. This was not a character study, more like a character discovery.

I always find disjointed and fragmented stories difficult to enjoy. It’s hard to find a thread to commit myself to and each shift is a jolt out of the story. For this novel, the fragmentation made sense once the author had fully trapped me inside her web. However, sometimes even with clever ideas, the execution can still fail on some level, and knowing how necessary the approach might have been didn’t win me over fully. The snatches of scenes along with the protagonist’s reactions to them started to become a little repetitive. There’s only so many “What the Hell is going on?” reactions I can read before it starts sounding like a mantra, repeated to induce numbness rather than full engagement.

My reservations aside, I thought the little poison pill at the heart of this nightmare-scape was worth it. I enjoyed the revelation that I, not the main character, was the Alice in this twisted little fairytale. Having already been suitably impressed with The Puppet Maker’s Bones (review here), this story has done nothing to sate my appetite for this author’s work. If you don’t have a problem with a confusing kaleidoscope of scenes slowly resolving into a nasty reality, I think you’re going to love this one.

Rating: 4/5

Price at the time of review: $2.99 US

Available: Amazon, Smashwords, Kobo, Barnes and Noble, Sony

Author site: http://alisatangredi.com/
GoodReads page: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/16099064-under-the-looking-glass

Posted in 4, Mystery, Novel, Reviews | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

“Storm Damage” – by John A. A. Logan

Cover ImageAn anthology of ten fables which cover ground from the fictitious Scottish space program to the adventures of an orange pig in the company of wolves, Storm Damage seems to hint at questions which it asks the reader to elaborate on and answer; if an answer is possible.

Starting off with the unusual Unicorn One, a hairdresser from Glasgow becomes the first in space for the much maligned Scottish space program. The story is carried forward with a particularly mundane narrative given the topic. Personally, I like to think of this story as a statement about the cult of celebrity. The absurdity of a hairdresser becoming an astronaut for reasons of photogenicity is compounded when Russia also wants to claim her as spokesperson. I’m left remembering the countless times that celebrity has been sufficient to give someone a platform for which they are unqualified.

Late Testing is a nasty little tale using the cruelty inflicted on an individual and the rationalisation of that act as representative of a larger crime, that of the mass slaughter of war; property as rationalisation for murder. This was one of the more dramatic stories of this anthology with a powerful message and I appreciated the images the author used in the telling.

The Magenta Tapestry looks at the rise and fall of the U.S.S.R. through a bloody fable of revenge. The Airman may have been a message about making peace with the horror of the Dresden bombings. The Pond explores the value we place on obsession through the story of a wealthy man attempting to make a deal with a old rival. And the title story, Storm Damage, is a bitter look at how powerless we are against the people and institutions who wish to feed off us, and that our simple wishes mean nothing to those who would exploit.

Not all stories won me over. I found the more traditionally written fable of The Orange Pig not quite to my taste and accordingly, I don’t think I found a meaning that suited me while reading. Additionally the last story, Sometimes all the World Comes Down, was another disjointed metaphysical exercise that I seem to come across more often as the last work of an anthology. I rarely appreciate them and this case was no exception.

However, this anthology proved again why I enjoy this author. He has a habit of making me work a little harder to connect with his message. But even if I feel I’m floundering, I can still sense something underneath the writing that may be apparent to more intelligent readers than myself. His narratives are often quite prosaic – such as in Unicorn One and the title story, but here he has also demonstrated some more poetic elements and imagery with Late Testing.

I reviewed Logan’s novel The Survival of Thomas Ford last year (review here) and I found it to be a great experience, giving the book an honourable mention in the 2012 Papyrus Independent Fiction Award (announcement here).

Rating: 4/5

Price at the time of review: $2.99 US

Available: Amazon

Author site: http://johnaalogan.wordpress.com/
GoodReads page: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/15986147-storm-damage

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“Untimed” – by Andy Gavin

Cover ImageWhat do you do when you discover you have a hidden talent for time travel and you encounter a conspiracy to remove the importance of Benjamin Franklin from history? You probably get set for an adventure across time.

Charlie is an atypical teen who has trouble being noticed; his mother does not even remember his name. His father and aunt are historians who are absent more than present and he’s not able to get a girl to remember him long enough to get a date. It’s a strange existence until a chance encounter with a malevolent clockwork man sends him to the past where Oliver Twist antics and lusty thoughts for a damsel not quite in distress lead to history being irreparably harmed.

Untimed is a young adult time travel fantasy novel that interweaves a small amount of historical fact with a large amount of whimsy. It’s veritably littered with pop culture leavings and bears a small similarity to the oft-referenced Back to the Future movie franchise. The novel is fun and, in my opinion, firmly targeted at a young adult male audience.

Time travellers are a rare breed – the male traveller can jump backwards and the female traveller forwards. In an attempt to protect history from such potentially interfering characters, “Father Time” (or some other temporal deity) renders these  travellers partially inconsequential. The notion is rather preposterous but makes for entertaining storytelling. When Charlie meets “the girl of his dreams” in the 18th century, he is actually acquainting himself with a fellow time traveller. Together they can travel across time and space in all directions. Unfortunately, due to a clever conspiracy hatched by our mysterious clockwork men, Benjamin Franklin is removed as a pivotal character in history and the future becomes one of clockwork dominance.

These strange clockwork antagonists thwart our heroes at every turn and give the story a relentless pace with Charlie’s father and aunt joining the adventure and creating a sidebar of familial tension.

There are sexual references and some fairly crass observations, which no doubt will appeal to teenagers. Take the following for example:

I’m not sure what surprises me more – that she’s a teen mother or that I just saw my first glimpse of tit.

The observation and attitude smacks of boyhood adolescence. The author has worked hard in giving our narrator a genuine voice and it’s done quite well throughout the novel. Additionally, the fledgling romance between Charlie and Yvaine ripens with teenage lust in a pretty genuine way, especially considering Yvaine is “experienced” by the time naive Charlie’s hormones get the better of him. The encounters aren’t specifically depicted, but are quite obvious – nothing I would expect should be denied to a teenage reader however.

This novel is the first in a series. The ending is left unceremoniously hung, quite similarly to the Michael J. Fox equivalent, but the book could be enjoyed in standalone fashion despite this.

Overall, this story was fun, fun, fun. The writing was clean and simple with neither the history nor the time travel becoming overbearing, the mechanics of the latter never taking itself too seriously. There was adventure, danger, humour, romance, sass and a bit of sex all punctuated with rather cute illustrations (well, maybe not the sex bit). If you have the opportunity to recommend a book to a teenage boy, take the risk in recommending this one. Of course, this should not be seen as a barrier to the older “teenager-in-spirit”.

Rating: 4/5

Price at the time of review: $2.99 US

Available: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Apple

Author site: http://all-things-andy-gavin.com/author/
GoodReads page: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/16277039-untimed

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“Halkskin” – by Tony Bertauski

Cover ImageBiomites. Artificial stem cells, revolutionary in the treatment of almost everything – repairing or enhancing. But at what point does the artificial overwhelm the natural? At what point to we replace ourselves with our invention? What does it mean to remain human in an in-human age?

Halfskin is, at its heart, a techno-thriller. The main character targeted for death by an almost dystopian society because of the technology within him. However, I think the author is also painting in shades of grey to an extent.

Biomites are invented for medical reasons – rapid healing, saving lives; stem cells that replicate to repair the body, like a self-sustaining robot army for good. It’s soon discovered that Biomites are also useful for enhancing – improving intelligence, strengthening the body, reversing the ageing process.

It’s not difficult to understand that such an invention is going to cause some societal issues. In our story, moral lobbying helps introduce some extreme laws that state a Biomite composition of over 40% leads to quarantine and 50% results in a form of execution – or as the law states “shutting down”. Nix, our main character is stuck in this web of legislative murder. As a young boy his life is saved after an horrific car crash by a massive injection of Biomites, but as the Biomites replicate over the years and the new laws are introduced, Nix finds himself quarantined on what would be called Death Row – if the law still considered him human. It’s easy for the reader to smart at the injustice of Nix’s fate, to brand those protecting humanity as inhuman and the author does a great job of playing that angle. However, again, I don’t think the message is one-sided.

The author intersperses the action with small news stories or fragments of history that briefly touch upon the invention of the Biomite and a small sample of events that might start to explain how laws of selective “culling” could be introduced: the spelling bee where impossibly difficult words for a child are being spelled with ease, the baseball game with the baseball pitcher with almost super strength in his throwing arm, a number of events that would, over time, turn public opinion against those with Biomites.

What was fascinating to me was not so much how society might have reacted in the story, but how I would have reacted in a similar situation. The questions begin to float off the page:

“Are these super beings actually human?”

“If not, how do we protect ourselves from an in-human race?”

I found this to be a rather chilling aspect of the novel. We are presented with a main character and his older sister who are essentially the heroes of the novel, fighting the injustice of the laws and trying to escape their fate. It is easy to invest in them, follow them through the story and hope that they succeed. However, I was left with a nagging feeling, despite my sympathetic reaction, that perhaps I was on the wrong side.

I liked that the novel made me examine my reactions to the characters and the context of the story. I find it refreshing to have a response slightly more complex than “hero = good, villain = bad” and I think Halfskin delivered on this well. I liked the pacing and the more mind-bending elements; the discovery that the main characters can exert a kind of control over Biomites leads to some interesting scenes and one rather large twist.

There were a few things here and there that didn’t satisfy me quite as much as I would have liked. I found the ending petered out rather than closing confidently. It almost felt that the author had decided to make this part of a trilogy towards the end of the writing and it became important to have an ending that was merely a pause between novels. It wasn’t a cliffhanger and there is some closure – but it just felt a little limp to me. I would have much preferred this to remain a standalone novel foregoing a sequel. It’s a personal reaction, but one that I couldn’t shake off.

The novel was well written. However, I did feel that there were enough typos for me to think this required an extra proof-read. None of the errors really damaged the telling of the story, so it’s more of a minor quibble. But I thought it worth noting for those who are adamant that released novels should be error free.

Overall, I was satisfied with this novel. Last year I read and reviewed The Annihilation of Foreverland by the same author (review here) and I was similarly happy. The author creates stories that I want to read, an important talent for a novelist. I’m sure I’ll read more of his work in the future.

Rating: 4/5

Price at the time of review: $0.99 US

Available: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Diesel

Author site: http://bertauski.com/
GoodReads page: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/16193991-halfskin?ac=1

Posted in 4, Novel, Reviews, Science Fiction | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment