Book Review: Year of Wonders

IMG_0012.JPG

Stories of disasters and disease are difficult to get right. Human anxiety of such events occurring, especially in this day and age, are often why we find such stories so enthralling. But often they simply feed our anxieties of such events rather than give us hope. The biggest reason for this is because the main character of this kind of story is usually the disaster or the disease. The so-called “characters” of disaster stories typically consist of nothing more than stereotypes, merely serving the purpose of being survivors of the catastrophe. The pandemic becomes the spectacle and suffering we desire to witness, and the survivors are mere filler.

Year of Wonders is quite the opposite of the aforementioned kind of story. Never before have I read a book whose plot revolves around a plague where the characters are at the forefront. And characters they are! Rather than simply focusing on the horrors of the pandemic, Geraldine Brooks presents the pandemic through the eyes of the people who encounter it. Yes, this is a story about survivors, but survivors the reader gets to know and love. The reader is as close to the driver’s seat of this journey as they can possibly be. It’s the first book I’ve read in a long time where I felt true grief for its characters, and was just as exhausted as they were by the time the ordeal was over. But through all the pain and hardship, the story succeeds in giving a glimmer of hope to readers in utter despair.

Year of Wonders is told through the writings of Anna Frith, a widowed mother living in an unnamed “Plague Village”. When Anna discovers that a visitor in her home has come under the Plague, the disease quickly spreads to the rest of the village. Since Anna is willing to help, she is recruited by the local rector and his wife to assist in mediating the disease among the infected. When the Plague quickly worsens and Anna’s only two children die, the rector is desperate to rally the village into order and unity to fight back against the disease. Despite great fear, most of the village complies. But hope and faith only last so long. As the villagers witness the death toll outnumber the living, they resort to shaming their problems on accused witches and other occult measures to vent their frustration. Anna and the rector’s family work tirelessly to keep the village in composure, but they can only do so much before mere human nature bests them as well.

It’s hard to pinpoint just what the best part of this novel is because it is so well written. The best place to start is how the story is orchestrated. The book opens after-the-fact of the plague, but the device isn’t superfluous. The reader truly wants to know how these villagers got where they are through Brooks’ eloquent language of wounded souls. When we then meet the villagers before the disaster, we get a glimpse of their past-life, the way things were before, but this peace doesn’t last long by any means. Most stories like this would take a full third of the book before the pandemic is fully underway. Brooks shows the utter viciousness and rapid-spread of the Plague as it takes victim after victim soon after its arrival. From here, the story refuses to let up. I have said that for many-a-book, but readers are offered little reprieve from gruesomely graphic accounts of different Plague victims. Such a device puts the reader in Anna’s shoes as she witnesses horror after unhinging horror.

These horrors are conveyed quite well, because Anna is the lifeblood of this story. The reader hears every emotion in her head without disrupting the momentum of the novel. We feel her grief at the death of her children, her delight in a full-night’s rest, her jealousy of others’ “perfect” lives, and her anger at those whom have done her wrong. But what we feel the most is her perseverance. Her kind soul is always willing to help those in need, and she will drop anything at a moment’s notice to do so. Her endurance is experienced by the reader as she goes from deathbed to deathbed, struggling to give peace to many souls’ final moments. At times, some of her actions feel a bit of a stretch, given all that she manages to do under such exhaustion. In addition, there are some tasks she undertakes in the second act which seem a little unfitting, almost like she is attempting the impossible. Given both these events and all she is able to accomplish in the after-math, her actions felt beyond many people’s ability, especially for Anna. Again, it’s a stretch, but it fits her motivations. She’s seen so much death in her life that she wants to make others’ lives better in any way she can, even right down to saving one. This is an emotion many people feel, which is why Anna feels like such a real person.

The shock-value of the story is truly something to behold, as Brooks presents dozens of gruesome cases of the Plague; no two victims suffer the same. But also, desperate times call for desperate measures, and those at their emotional breaking point will do whatever it takes to survive the disease. It is here when Anna and the rector’s family contend with fears produced by the Plague, and not just the epidemic itself. With this, the book is never short of shocking moments which build to one of multiple unexpected climaxes in the final third, which places a near-overbearing emotional load on the reader.

The language of the book is also well presented. It’s not only readable and reads fast, but it contains various dialect, mannerisms, and idioms of the setting. It isn’t Old English, so it fits the pacing of the story well. The religious echoes of the language are just as prominent in the story, as characters try to hold on to faith amidst such terrible struggles. With that, given the setting, the theme of witches also comes into play. Like most witch hunts of the time, the accusations are futile, but the willingness of the characters to take advantage of people’s fear of the ideology is consistently abused. It is nonetheless a testament of desperate measures by individuals to cast blame for their hardships where it is never due.

Despite rather depressing themes and events littered throughout the novel, readers of this review would be surprised that Year of Wonders contains in it a message of hope. I never realized until writing this review the irony, yet delightful truth of the title. Over the course of the year in which the story takes place it still has its share of redemption, whether it be the willingness of a human to make sacrifices, the revival of a thought lost loved one, or a simply unexplainable miracle. The resolution ends in a most unexpected place, both in setting and story, but is nonetheless a testament to a steady soul being rewarded amidst times of hardship. Year of Wonders is an enjoyably exhaustive novel to read, and readers with interest should take caution, but it is nonetheless a captivating and moving story.

-David Brashier; Boone, North Carolina; January 2018

Book Review: The Cycle of Ages Saga- Delve Deep

IMG_9797.JPG

Faraway Faltyr and the Finders Keepers are officially back. With two astounding Cycle of Ages novels under his belt, the fantasy author with an edge, Jeremy Hicks, is back at the helm of his series with its third installment, Delve Deep. While Finders Keepers and Sands of Sorrow challenged the boundaries of fantasy and genre-blending, they were no strangers to clunkyness at times. In addition, the goals of the Finders Keepers and the lore of Faltyr never felt fully complete, like something was still out of reach. While the ambitious Delve Deep continues to exhibit some of these staple issues of the series, it manages to make massive strides in improving upon its predecessors. Not only has Faltyr and its lands and peoples come full circle, but the characters we know and love officially have something to fight for in what is now a truly masterful fantasy series.

Delve Deep picks up some time after Sands of Sorrow left off, and it shows because readers have a bit of catching up to do, especially if they haven’t read some additionally published Cycle of Ages short stories. Yes, before Delve Deep, Hicks wrote a number of short stories in Farawy Faltyr which are alluded to quite often in this novel. Unfortunately for me, I hadn’t read those stories before picking up this one. Granted, reading them isn’t necessary to enjoy this book, but the number of times they are referenced is jarring. Mention of short stories aside, we meet Finders Keepers in the city of Frasmauth, in hiding from their last skirmish in Sands of Sorrow. When it’s discovered that their lives are threatened by the forces of Oparre, Dor conveniently discovers that his master has determined a way to win the dreaded Blood War and ensure a peaceful end to the current Cycle of Ages. In case the simple runaway plot of Sands of Sorrow didn’t have high enough stakes for you, what the characters attempt to accomplish in this installment certainly will. In order for Finders Keepers to reclaim Dor’s lost items from the last book and end the Blood War, they must travel to Delve Deep, a city which may or may not exist. According to Yax, Delve Deep will enable them to essentially fast-travel to the sacred Spire, key to winning the War, as well as increase their numbers. Taking a dive in the dark, the Finders Keepers set out on yet another journey, this time beneath Faltyr to the Underworld.

The plot is a mouthful, and the book’s length can be daunting. It is easily bigger than the first two books combined, but Hicks thankfully devotes the first fourth of the novel to reintroduce the story in a small setting. This is key because Delve Deep increases the scale of the series, profoundly bigger than what was established in the first two novels. The book’s opening gives the reader time to re-acclimate to the characters, what they’re up to, and their goals and aspirations. Most of the opening scenes are just the Finders Keepers sitting around and talking, or talking while fighting each other. The chemistry they share is great, and it’s especially crucial for establishing the main trio, now a quartet, consisting of Dor, Yax, Bruexias’ daughter Tameri, and the Elven Queen, Shy’elle. Granted, a lot changed in Sands of Sorrow to the look and feel of Finder’s Keepers, so it was refreshing to see them in the simplicity of Frasmauth. The town is used as a platform introduce the conflict, to which the grand main adventure takes off.

The second quarter of Delve Deep unfortunately feels very side-quest-y. The Finders Keepers have not only acquired a massive roster of characters since the second novel, but they have even more characters to recruit in order to accomplish certain tasks. Entire chapters are devoted to finding this-or-that person so they can find this-or-that thing. It moves at a sluggish pace for the middle of the first act, and doesn’t spur any excitement until the characters are finally looking for the device which is central to accomplishing their goal. Thankfully, once they are finally determining how to acquire said item, the story becomes more high-stakes. It is this portion of the novel which lends itself to some innovative action scenes, and even expounds upon Faltyr’s lore and technology down to individual cultures.

It is here when Delve Deep exposes one of its greatest issues: too many characters. Much like the beginning of Sands of Sorrow, Finders Keepers increases its numbers exponentially, unfortunately just to kill off a multitude of them before the story is halfway through. Granted, a large roster is needed in order to accomplish certain tasks, but there is little emotional weight due to the Walking Dead style of mass execution. Unfortunately, some of the characters the main ensemble goes out of their way to find have very little presence or weight in the long run, and some are quickly killed off. Certain romances and connections are made which didn’t exist prior to this novel, and they are easily the most forgettable parts of the story, acting as nothing more than unnecessary drama or filler to be mediated later.

Thankfully, many of the disposable characters are surrounded or led by the main quartet, which at least keeps things interesting. There is also a handful of side characters who serve important roles in the story, as well as balance some of the clutter. The book continues to introduce more characters in the latter half of the book, but they are in fewer numbers and carry much more emotional weight. I just can’t see why the same can’t be said for those introduced in the former half.

But for as many disposable characters as the book contains, the main quartet never fail to impress. The circumstances they’ve been through and their familial connections give them a chemistry like no other. For such a small group, their diversity is a prime testament of a team of differing individuals who can learn to work together. It’s at this point when readers know that the main characters are the backbone of this series. The ways in which they are tested throughout the novel and their ability to still love each other at the end shows just how well developed they are. What makes this group so unique is that the individuals who make up the whole are by no means orderly, run-of-the-mill fighters. It is mentioned throughout the novel that they are mercenaries, not a trained army, and this one word dominates among the group. They have no formal experience, but lots of different abilities and skills. They’re simply trying to make a broken system work, and while they fail along the way, they eventually learn to get it done. That’s called drama and conflict, and that makes great storytelling.

Sir Fredrick and the Protectorate Mage, Marduk, from Sands of Sorrow return in Delve Deep, establishing themselves as the main villains of the series. While they are just as loveable a duo as in the last book, they never encounter the Finders Keepers. The reader keeps expecting them to eventually catch up to and fight the Finders Keepers like last time, but they never make contact. Unfortunately, their arc in this installment is almost completely unrelated to the heroes, and mostly serves to expose their plans to the reader and set up future novels. They also appear less and less towards the story’s second half, and their absence may leave some wanting. Nevertheless, both of them (and especially Fredrick) eat up every scene they’re in.

Keeping momentum of this suspense is another aspect Delve Deep masters. When the main characters establish their plan in the beginning, the reader naturally expects that they will see their goal to the end, climaxing in an epic battle with the villains. But despite the immense length, Delve Deep keeps the reader on edge and occupied for its near-400 pages, not even realizing that the goal is only halfway accomplished. This is a great way to write a book, and leaves much to be expected from future stories.

Delve Deep is as inventive as ever with its use of the Aether, the magical force of COA. The Aether continues to evolve in this installment as we learn of its capabilities and the abilities it can enable its bearer. The action descriptions of these abilities are also top notch. It’s satisfying to hear Yax use his wand to take out a gruesome ghoul with a hot streak of light. Hicks really pushed the limit with action scenes this time around. Shock factor also feels most earned in Delve Deep. Hicks is no stranger to pulling massive explosions or gargantuan dragons out of nowhere on the reader, but here, most of the shock factor is built up, or is used in ways the reader isn’t expecting. The weaving of these action scenes as well as the emotions around them is also top-notch. Part of what makes the build-up and climaxes earned is the circumstances surrounding them and the characters.

While the Aether’s power is expound upon in many ways which feel appropriate in Delve Deep, there are other instances which caught me completely off guard. One of the key elements of Faltyr is that most any technology is powered by the Aether. Most introductions of new technologies in this installment were done at a steady pace which made them feel appropriate to the world, or at least allowed me to adjust to them. After all, the lore and technologies we’ve been exposed to thus far in Faltyr feel like that of a typical fantasy world. But there were many instances in Delve Deep in which a technology was introduced which felt ripped straight out of real life. It took some time for me to grasp how such a familiar technology fit into a fantasy world, or at least the rules it had previously established.

And that’s one of the more jarring aspects of Delve Deep: many times it seems to have trouble separating fantasy from reality. Like I said, a lot of technology feels like technology familiar to a modern reader. Now, there’s nothing wrong with expanding the lore of a world or universe, but then there is expanding a lore straight out of left field. That, or I simply need to remind myself of the limits and rules of Faltyr and all that the Aether is capable of producing. But while the technology is one thing, dialogue and character mannerisms are another. There are a lot of dialogue and exchanges in Delve Deep which feel blatantly modern. Don’t get me wrong, there has always been some use of modern humor and wordplay in COA; the Finders Keepers are rag-tag, dirty people and are no strangers to banter. But there are some uses of it here which just feel downright inappropriate, even in a more civil sense. When one character is introduced early in the novel, much of her internal monologues and thoughts revolve around a book she has recently published. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the exchanges sound like a meeting between an author and a publishing house executive in New York City. It’s completely out of nowhere and sounds more like a conversation I would have with published authors in real life, and moments like these recur numerous times throughout the book. Granted, none of these moments ruined the novel for me, but at times they pulled me out. It’s certainly jarring when one is reading along in an age-old fantasy world and suddenly the characters discuss something like sports terms used in modern-day. While this is mostly a nitpick, the occasional hiccup in tone occurred just a little more than occasionally in this one.

Despite some minor flaws here and there, Delve Deep is still a fantastic book. When it reaches the location of its title, the payoff doesn’t fail to impress. In addition, the task Dor was originally ordained with is far from complete. The Blood War has yet to be won, and Finders Keepers merely found themselves in (one of many) a skirmish blocking their path, if not a truly epic one. It shows that this world is pitted against them, and it is never going to be in the favor of their likes. It’s a satisfying conclusion to a story which leaves much to be anticipated in the next installment. But for now, I can faithfully say Delve Deep is the best of the series.

With three novels under his belt, Hicks has quite the franchise going. I’m now eager to read those additional short stories, as he now has his own “expanded universe” going for the series. If anything, it looks that Cycle of Ages has quite the potential for an expanded universe beyond the page. For now, I simply can’t wait to see what the series has to offer next; I just might go back and read the first two novels again. In the meantime, I can’t recommend these books to you enough. Check them out, they are truly worth your time.

-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; January 2018

You can purchase Delve Deep from Amazon here

You can find other Cycle of Ages stories here

 

Book Review: The Keeper of Lost Things

IMG_9625.jpg

I purchased The Keeper of Lost Things for the purpose of discussing it in a book club, which is something I had never done before. I enjoyed the prospect of reading a book with no clue of what I was getting into. With that, there were certain elements early in this book that concerned me. It had a tone similar to some heavily philosophical books I had to read for my college seminar at the time. It dabbled in philosophy, what we make of life, and tea*. Thankfully, Keeper of Lost Things not only took these elements in a different direction, but had a lot of fun in doing so, making for a stellar novel. 

The Keeper of Lost Things follows the story of Laura, caretaker of the deceased Anthony Peardew. Laura discovers a life-long secret of Anthony’s upon his death: He hoarded away anything he found that another person had lost, and tried to find its owner. When Anthony’s will states that he wanted Laura to take ownership of his home and return his lost items, Laura is lost for words. She fears for her inability to fulfill the dreams of a man she loved so much. Thankfully, with the help of a gardener and a girl across the street, Laura overcomes her concerns and takes up the task with them as a trio. With their encouragement, she’ll learn along the way how Anthony’s life and lost things can build confidence in her own life, as well as confront an unhealthy past. 

The best part of this book is that it is all-around feel-good. There were very few points in this book when there wasn’t a broad smile on my face as I read it. Sure, it has drama and moments in which the main character is struggling. But Keeper takes the road less travelled by many contemporary best-sellers and avoids leaving the reader gut-wrenchingly downtrodden. Okay, not all novels do that these days, but the majority are out to shock, and leave the reader feeling uneasy. I can only help but feel that Ruth Hogan felt there was too much of this in modern fiction and decided to write this happy-go-lucky book. 

Don’t get me wrong, Keeper of Lost Things does deal with grim details like death and the meaning of life, but again, in ways the reader wouldn’t expect. This book places the death of one of its most central characters at the very beginning of story, yet in death this character still leaves a depth of impact on the characters which are still alive. It gives the feeling that the character’s death wasn’t in vain, but breathed a new life into them. The book even makes use of some playful elements in its philosophical musings. The reader is led to believe that a ghost inhabits the house, but in a fun way rather than haunting. Additionally, a lot of the big, heady questions are put in simplistic terms by a character with down syndrome. 

One thing this story does much better than others is its handling of a handicapped character. Sunshine, the girl who lives across the street, has a form of down-syndrome. Most stories would use this handicap as nothing more than a crutch, something to invoke an emotional response in the reader. Instead, the handicap is seen more as a happy accident in this case. Sunshine is able to put to terms** much of what Laura can’t as she questions her role in Anthony’s story.

Another cleverly used element the book employs is the telling of a parallel story in another time period. However, the connection between the story of the past and the story of the present aren’t very obvious. There are a few paralleled elements, but the characters are entirely different, almost like reading two books at once. I kept wondering if these were present-day characters under different names, or if a younger present day character would appear and meet these past characters. Miraculously, that never happened. It isn’t until the last few pages that these two stories are brought full circle, and it invokes the greatest emotional response the book could possibly rip from the reader. The second story is also by no means boring, and its vagueness never feels annoying. Usually when a book switches between two different time periods with little to no context I can’t help but grow annoyed as the story chugs through. But here, I never found myself moaning "Oh great, this again" with the other tale. Its characters are just as genuine as the main story, and the struggles they encounter are interesting, not your typical run-of-the-mill conflict. A lot of this has to do with the fact that the two main characters’ relationship is unconventional, and complicated. It carries its own drama simply from its difficulties.

I can do nothing but appreciate this book. It invokes nothing but feel-good-ism and leaves the reader with an encouraging message. So many books these days are out to reach deep within the reader and bring out the worst in humanity, or the most sorrowful. This book reaches within you, but in a good way. As we discussed in my book club, it’s refreshing to read a book of general fiction for once that doesn’t leave you on a down note. Keeper of Lost Things is full of lovable characters on a simple journey that will leave readers appreciating life more. Give it a read for an uplifting tale. 

*As a tea drinker, I find it annoying just how often fiction writers these days like to write about tea. 

**Sunshine also makes a lot of playful mockery of the 'tea' element seen so often in literature, pointing at just how loudly its used. 

-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; December 2017

Book Review: Monsters in Appalachia

IMG_9624.jpg

Book Review: Monsters in Appalachia

Monsters in Appalachia is a short story anthology which dips into the lives of folks inhabiting the eastern mountains of America, and both the literal and figurative monsters they interact with. Its message is simple: Monsters can be real, frightening creatures, or people in our lives, or things we can’t necessarily see or put words to. 

Where Monsters in Appalachia shines is in its depiction of the Appalachian peoples. Sheryl Monks has a full understanding of the region’s dialect, as well as the hardships its peoples face. The people in these stories are battle-worn by the struggles faced by many of those living in the mountains, and their relationships with their companions show it. What gives the characters life are their scars and flaws. No one is totally desirable and in many ways they know it. While the grit and depth of Monsters’s characters is its strongest suit, they are also unfortunately its only strong suit. 

Most every story in Monsters in Appalachia is forgettable. Aside from the occasional instance which gave me some shock, memorable moments in these tales are few and far between. When I finished the book, I scanned the table of contents to try and see if I could remember something, anything from these stories, to no avail. The most memorable moment comes in the last story, which is easily the best, but mainly because it is so out-there from the others. 

Monsters does a good job of communicating the fact that the people of Appalachia aren’t run-of-the-mill, and doesn’t depict the tourist destination many view the mountains to be. Living in Appalachia takes sacrifice and comes with the understanding that dangers will be faced, and for many this reality is forced upon them. But when this message is communicated in such similar terms from story to story, only the theme of the anthology becomes the wheat separated from the chaff. 

Monsters in Appalachia did not stick it for me. While I applaud the passion of the author, I can’t help but point out how forgettable these stories are, and how similar many of the characters and their circumstances feel. The anthology also suffers from being too vague at times, almost feeling like a poetry collection.  What little there is to gain from it, in my opinion, isn’t worth the $17 price tag for a relatively thin book. 

-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; December 2017

Book Review: The October Country

IMG_9622.jpg

Short story anthologies can be difficult for me to get into, especially ones that aren’t serial. Many times a good story feels over before it’s even begun, and then I have to move on to a new one and meet new characters in a new setting. Short stories can be enthralling, capable of telling a simple tale without establishing a universe or communicating every thought in a character’s mind as so many works of lengthy fiction tend to do these days. An overbearing level of emotion can be expressed in very few pages with short stories. My problem is with having to read many short stories all at once. I feel that I can only appreciate short stories if I take them one at a time. For a non-serial anthology, that’s hard for me to do because I don’t like to sit on a single book for too long. 

Ray Bradbury is considered by many to be the master of American short fiction. Even aside from his short stories, unlike dozens of other science fiction authors, his novel-length works are extremely brief. His best-known pieces such as Fahrenheit 451 and Something Wicked This Way Comes are short and sweet, and among many favorites in modern American sci-fi and fantasy. But for Bradbury’s biggest fans, his greatest strengths lie in his short stories. His anthology, The Martian Chronicles, is among the most popular collections of short stories in science fiction literature. However, The Martian Chronicles is also serial, and while each story deals with individual charming characters, the mastery of it all is in the over-arching story.

My original roadblock with Bradbury’s The October Country was the fact that each story is standalone. While I applaud the fact that each story can hold its own, it was still very difficult for me to read a brief piece and then immediately move on to a completely new one. With this, I wasn’t pacing myself to fully appreciate the stories in my early readings. However, as I read on, I wasn’t so much focused on the number of individual stories but what each story had to offer. Are some stronger than others? Yes. Are some downright forgettable? Yes. But in a sense, that’s the risk you run with works such as these. All the stories are different, so there will be mountaintop moments you remember and cherish, and other times you find something a little less than stellar.

As the title suggests, the overarching theme of The October Country is that of the haunting times of autumn. As leaves change and fall to the ground and trees barren and naked, there is a sense of mystery in the atmosphere many of us feel. Especially for us Halloween lovers, October Country is filled with these vibes. Each story contains a sense of mystery of the unknown, and always in the chilling sense. Bradbury’s imaginative worlds invoke a sense of both whim and horror. One story may contain an entire society within the confines of a haunted house, complete with its own religion. Another may be a whimsical tale about El Dia De Los Muertos (The Day of the Dead) which quickly turns grim. Or one could encounter a macabre mystery, ending on a heavily emotional tone as the reader views death through the eyes of a young boy. 

To name some of my favorites, "The Jar" is a story about an entire community whose inhabitants all view the contents of a jar differently. It grows more and more intense as the citizens go insane over what is in the jar, but it leaves the reader scratching their head and never truly answers the question. "The Small Assassin" is a disturbing story about a mother who believes her baby wants to kill her entire family. I won’t tell you how, that’s for you to read. "The Crowd" is another look at an insane individual who no one listens to, and contains some similar elements of "The Small Assassin". My absolute favorite is "The Scythe", a story which completely pulls the rug out from under you and is a decrepit look at death. This one was so good I used it for a term paper this past semester. The anthology ends beautifully with a sorrowful, yet charming tale called "The Wonderful Death of Dudley Stone". It ends the haunting anthology on a positive note about life and what we make of it.

Short stories are a wonderful thing in an age of lengthy fiction. For me, I’m still learning how to read and interpret them, especially en-masse. Reviewing short stories as anthologies will always be a bumpy ride for me, as they will inevitably contain stories I do and don’t like. It all depends on what the content and general theme of those selected stories are. In October Country’s case, while I certainly didn’t enjoy it as much as Martian Chronicles, it’s still a charming anthology which contains the classic happy haunts Bradbury never fails to deliver. Check it out around Halloween for the best results. 

-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; December 2017

The Summer of Too Much Sci-Fi

IMG_8066.JPG

This past spring I attended JordanCon, ready to refill my to-read book stack. As I met up with author friends and was introduced to new ones, I found myself spending nearly $200 on books. I had saved up for the con, so I had no shame. Since JordanCon is a sci-fi/fantasy convention, naturally, I walked away with a massive stack of the genre to occupy my reading for late spring/summer. In addition, I went on to purchased a number of other sci-fi/fantasy books outside the con, which included Stephen King’s IT, and the Star Wars Thrawn Trilogy. Little did I realize how reading so much of one genre would leave me literarily deprived. 

Upon completing a handful of my books from JordanCon, I was feeling great about my purchases. Not only were they a good refresher from the emotionally heady texts I had to read for AP Literature, but the particular books I read were smart, inventive, and gripping. Once summer vacation began, I started reading IT purely out of anticipation for the film which would release in September. The first thing I discovered about IT was how slow it was, and its length; it’s an extremely long book. I express a number of complaints about IT in another piece I wrote over the summer, so I’ll spare you my whining. I forced myself to gruel through 50 pages a day, which took about two hours to complete, and even at that rate it was a full month before I finished the book. I was fatigued by the time I finally completed it, and (funny story) I have yet to even see the film since it has released

After I completed IT, I was more than looking forward to reading some much shorter sci-fi books, which I began around the end of June. I got to a point where I was averaging one book a day. I still had a massive stack of books to get through, and college was a little over a month away. This was my problem: all the books were science fiction or fantasy, so I quickly became bored with them. Each book I picked up felt all too similar to the others, bringing little to nothing new to the table. I struggled to write good reviews for the books, and I feel some of my reviews were a little too scathing. I knew I had to finish the stack before college, but I had no desire to even pick them up. I would make myself sick grueling through page after page, and reading soon became a chore than a refreshing hobby. I found that there was so little diversity in what I was reading, as well as a shear lack of literary merit, sci-fi and fantasy was no longer fun, and just felt like junk-food. 

Let’s get one thing clear: there is nothing wrong with reading science fiction and fantasy. I don’t actually believe the genre is junk food, as some would argue. But for my situation, I simply burned myself out. I know plenty of people who only read sci-fi and fantasy who don’t experience this "reader’s block", as some call it. But I’m a versatile reader and writer. I enjoy writing sci-fi/fantasy and other genre fiction, but I also experiment with pure fiction. My writing is most passionate in essays like this one, and I’ve dipped my toes into poetry since coming to college. I also love reading all different kinds of books, from genre fiction to pure fiction, histories, celebrity auto-biographies, self-help; you name it. I love reading and learning new and diverse things, and this was the root of my problem. 

There comes a point when I read too much sci-fi and need to shake things up. Rather than attempting to tackle a massive stack of sci-fi/fantasy books all at once, my to-read list must include varied types of literature. But for me, reader’s block doesn’t only apply to sci-fi/fantasy. Since starting college, most of the texts I’ve been required to read are highly philosophical in nature, or lean toward the pure fiction side of literature. I’m now starting to experience reader’s block in that genre, so to counteract the block, my next leisure book will likely be a more simple, sci-fi/ fantasy novel.

Science fiction and fantasy make for great books; they are among my favorites. But for me personally, reading stays fresh by reading a variety of different subjects. Reading is the best way I retain information, and I’m someone who loves to learn different things, as well as gain literary merit. Now, just because genre fictions doesn’t contain "literary merit" doesn’t mean one can’t reap benefits or lessons from it. Readers simply have to experience different genres for themselves and find their niche. It all starts with turning the first page. 

-David Brashier; Boone, North Carolina; October 2017

Book Review: The Haters

IMG_8208.JPG

I continually find Young Adult fiction to be a gamble, and many agree with me. The idea of grown adults writing from the perspective of teenagers has become a bit of a controversy. All too often, YA novels come off as over-exaggerated, philosophical TV meals filled with excessive rebellion and far-out youth fantasy. This isn’t to say that there are no good products in the YA genre. Some YA books have defined generations, and some even contain literary merit and messages that resound beyond their intended audiences. Hunger Games, anyone? But for every one of those, there is always a slush-pile of bland YA which, while they receive renowned critical praise, don’t mix well with the majority of real teenagers.

Jesse Andrews is a prime example of wheat from chaff when it comes to YA. His first book, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, was not only a major critical success, but was adapted into a highly well-received film. The book was a investing examination of death from a teen perspective, accompanied by characters and dialogue which felt real for young adults, not fictional young adults. His second book, The Haters, just might be even better. 

The Haters is the account of Wes, Corey and Ash, aspiring musicians who ditch a jazz camp in Shippensburg, Pennsylvania. They all love many different types of music, but at the same time always find excuses to hate on said music. They particularly hate their jazz camp, which is why they play the runaways, start a band, and go on an unplanned tour. The shenanigans which follows is a hilarious, yet heartwarming journey of a band trying to find its footing in its music style, all while learning more about each other and their own convictions. 

Haters hooked me early on with the very subject of its title: loving on music, yet hating on music. Though it’s an astoundingly obscure concept, it’s one I found relatable. I love a lot of different music genres and artists; I’m versatile in my preferences. Yet I can see a lot of flaws in those same artists, or can at least understand why other people hate on them. For instance, my favorite artist is Phil Collins. I love his songs for his unique, passionate voice and stylistic sounds, as well as his use of drum machines which made him famous. Yet I can also understand why he isn’t perfect, and why other people wouldn’t find him to be that captivating of an artist. He’s victim to a lot of corporatized music between TV, film, and his excessively popular Disney soundtracks. He also tends to be too pop and not enough rock, which many argue is what made him go off the deep end. I stand firm in why I like him, but I can see eye-to-eye with those who don’t. This isn’t something I’ve communicated with people before, let alone heard other people bring up. It’s a concept that only Andrews can feasibly put to paper, and in a relatable way, too. He has such bizarre ideas but he can make them so down-to-earth through his characters, which is why he has mastery of the YA craft. 

The Haters has what many other YA books don’t, and that is real characters. They aren’t fleeting rebels whose dialogue only consist of self-centered, snarky comments about everything in existence. They feel like real people, and a real group of friends. Their conversations between each other feel like ones I would have with my own friends. What is important to note is that these conversations feel like real teenage conversations, not how young adults think teenagers speak to each other. They also don’t spew re-heated philosophy in all their dialogue. While such works of fiction should contain some reasoning and philosophical thought of young minds, there are some books I read in which the characters think they are modern-day, moody teenage Aristotles. 

In terms of the plot, while the concept of taking a, mind me, very spontaneous road-trip seems far-out, the way in which it is executed didn’t leave me questioning it. It simply happened. Part of this is because Andrews is to-the-point in executing the plot. We don’t spend much time at the jazz camp so the story can gain some momentum. The road trip itself puts the characters in a variety of situations as they attempt to make a name for their band, as well as contend with group conflict. In addition, The Haters is quite the funny novel. I haven’t laughed this hard at a book in quite a while. Not only is the dialogue hilarious, but Wes’ internal monologues contain all sorts of scatter-brained ideas and Andrews even employs clever graphics to express his feelings. Wes, Corey, and Ash encounter a colorful cast of characters on their journey who are equally hilarious. Some want to help them and some want to kill them, and the variety of ways everyone goes about doing so make for a laugh-out-loud piece. 

By the time The Haters reached its end, I was left wanting. This is something difficult for a book to do, especially YA fiction. It doesn’t give the reader full closure as to how the group would have become a band, but leaves a desire to see them as a band and succeed. It smartly leaves us asking questions, yet longing to see what could have been with these characters.

Jesse Andrews is making a real name for himself in the YA scene, and with only two books under his belt. Given the success of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, I wouldn’t be surprised if The Haters is given a film. In fact, I really want to see a film adaptation. I definitely want to review Me and Earl at some point. It’s a very well crafted book for its subject matter and the audience it is intended for. Is The Haters better than Me and Earl? Perhaps not. All said, it is much funnier, faster paced, and more light-hearted. But Me and Earl tackled such a pressing issue and has resonated with a major cult-following. The Haters will hopefully hold its place with Andrews’ reputation. It’s YA at its finest, and a book that I feel many will find entertaining.

-David Brashier; Boone, North Carolina; September 2017

Book Review: One Amazing Thing

IMG_8210.JPG

One Amazing Thing was assigned to all incoming freshman at my university as our summer reading book. When we received the novel at orientation, we were given a brief pitch. The speaker described that the book involved a group of characters trapped in a room amidst an earthquake, and that each character in the room comes from almost every culture on earth. As the emotional tensions of the disaster escalate, the characters begin opening up to one another through telling a story shaped by their past, culture, and worldview. 

A number of freshman faces winced at the idea, as such a concept sounded forced. Some students started reading the book before the first day of orientation was up. One freshman told me: "I find it hard to believe that this diverse a group of people would happen be in the same place at the same time." When I pitched the book to others who were curious about my college endeavors, they couldn’t help but feel skeptical, again thinking that the a notion of such a mixed group of characters seemed staged and far-out. 

I was surprised that what I found hard to believe wasn’t how the characters came together, but how the major plot line was executed. One Amazing Thing takes place in an Indian visa office in an unnamed American city. Each of the characters are either working in the office, or are desperately trying to get to India for one reason or another. As the book explained to me how such a varied group of characters came to be, I no longer focused on the odds of such an event occurring, but on what the story was trying to tell me. 

The author does a beautiful job of portraying how the group interacts with each other. Some of the characters are atheist, some are Christian, one is Islamic, a handful are Hindu, and one is Buddhist. But behind everyone’s religion, worldview, and even skin color, is a past. Everyone’s past has defined who they are, and how they interpret the world around them and react to certain situations. As the earthquake rattles what is a normal day for the group, everyone is insistent as to how they shouldcollectively or individually handle their circumstances. The Vietnam veteran, trained in survival skills knows what’s best for everyone, even if they aren’t guaranteed survival. The Muslim believes Allah will save them, and grows jealous of the soldier, insisting that he is a holy man who will lead them to freedom. One man is simply trying to take a few drafts from a cigarette, despite the dangers of starting a fire amidst an already dire situation. Everyone’s perspective is given validity by the author, who gives a thoughtful depiction of how such a group of people would interact, and where conflict lies between ideologies. 

Because there are so many characters with different views, the story shifts perspective often. This keeps things fresh by not spending too much time with a single character, who each view situations with narrow-minded ideas. The story also doesn’t repeat the same event twice with multiple characters. So often books chose to repeat the same event through different eyes numerous times in order to provide different perspectives. While this device can work, it is often tedious, especially for books that switch perspective throughout such as this one. Yet Divakaruni maintains momentum by allowing readers to view an event through the thoughts of one character, leaving the others’ perspectives a mystery. Such gaps allow the reader to ask questions.

When the story was originally pitched to me, I found the main plot relatively easy to grasp: Reaching an emotional breaking point, the characters begin to open up to each other by sharing their past. I thought that this concept would have transitioned easily, but the actual initiation of the characters’ sharing their stories is abrupt and feels all too whimsical. Given Divakaruni’s elegant writing style (making what seems like a far-out concept so down-to-earth), I expected a smooth transition. Instead, the characters’ decision to tell stories plays out more like suggesting that everyone hold hands and sing "kum ba ya" under the stress of death row. It just doesn’t feel natural amidst the dire situation of an earthquake, where help may or may not make it in time. There was a way to initiate this action, but this simply didn’t feel appropriate. 

Aside from the rocky transition, each story presented is beautifully written, emotional, and just as diverse as the characters themselves. One is that of a 1950’s Sandlot-esc tale of a youth, quickly making an emotional turn with a more Stand By Me vibe. One is that of a love story amidst oppression by a communist regime. One is a tale of seeking asylum from religious prejudice. Every story involves a form of suffering, which allows the group to realize among themselves that no one has it perfect. Whether they are an A+ college student with wealthy parents, a lower-class shop owner, or belonging a minority group oppressed by a fearful government, everyone suffers in their own way. This allows them to break down their barriers by realizing that they are not the only ones who face hardship. Everyone’s story reveals how they found their way into the visa office they are in, which for many of the characters means that they are trying to get to India. As they wrestle with ideas such as fate and actions they take in life, doctrines of Hindu religion come into play which ever slowly form everyone’s reality. The fact that each character’s circumstances culminate to India and its culture is appropriate, as Chitra Divakaruni is Indian. 

While One Amazing Thing is a beautiful story, it doesn’t quite stick its landing. It does what all great forms of literature do by forcing the reader to ask questions, yet it doesn’t provide quite enough closure in some areas. Also, the ending is rather abrupt. After such a mature story, the ending feels more like that of a whimsical young adult novel of youth fantasy, right down to the last few paragraphs. 

One Amazing Thing managed to surprise me in many ways. It allowed me to grasp a seemingly unbelievable concept, and regard it more as a what-if situation, yet one which is more realistic than we may think. It gives us hope that, amidst times of divisiveness, people of different backgrounds can recognize their similarities of sin and suffering, and exercise sympathy. It also manages to tell wildly diverse, stylized tales in short chapters, showing off Chitra Divakaruni’s talent as a writer. Through the individual stories, readers can learn to appreciate the subtle nuances of their own stories. On the whole, One Amazing Thing is an inspiring novel which should shine a light for the world as a collective, and inspire individuals to appreciate their lives.

-David Brashier; Boone, North Carolina; September 2017

Random Purchase: Mindreader

This piece marks the start of a new series I am dubbing "Random Purchase". This is where I give a review for a book I have purchased…well…randomly. Now, said criteria doesn’t necessarily mean that I walked into a book store, pulled a random book from the shelf, and bought it. You see, the way I typically go about purchasing a book is by planning ahead; I know what I want to purchase, mainly because I have a limited amount of money. Usually when I go to the book store, I plan on purchasing a book from a prominent author I’ve stumbled upon online, or I’m purchasing a book by an author or a series I’ve already read. I will usually do the same at conventions, but I also do a bit more strategizing at those as I can easily spend upwards of $200 on books at a single con. 

The criteria for a book worthy of one of these "Random Purchase" reviews is that I couldn’t have planned to purchase it going into my visit to the bookstore. This means it is more likely to be purchased in a brick-and-mortar independent book store than a big-box Barnes and Noble. The book could catch my attention from its cover, the summary on the back, or a faint recognition of the author who wrote it. I also could have seen it featured on a "bookstagram" account and thought "I oughta’ get that." Bottom line: a "Random Purchase" is considered on the fly. This not only creates a sense of mystery and surprise when I read the book itself, but I also get to tell the tale of how I found it. 

Today’s random purchase is Mindreader by C. Terry Cline, Jr. I purchased Mindreader from Foggy Pine Books in Boone, North Carolina, a charming store which I highly recommend you check out if you’re in Appalachia. There are no indy book shops in Huntsville, so I was high on the excitement of simply getting to be in one and, naturally, felt the need to buy something. Of all the books in the shop I picked up this little gem. That purchase was made in March of this year, and it sat on my shelf until last weekend. As it lay lingering in my stack of to-read books, I was beginning to regret my decision of purchasing it. It was on the fly, out of excitement for being in my first indy shop, and it was obviously a bit more expensive having been purchased from one. I also didn’t know why a "C. Terry Cline, Jr." had any place on my shelf, as I longed for a little consistency amongst my collection of authors. All in all, I was thinking I would just grind through Mindreader and then sell it or donate it once I was done. I am overjoyed to say that I immediately reversed that decision upon closing the book, as it’s among the finest pieces of modern literature I have read. It’s a fiction which contains a little bit of everything, and lessons we can all learn from.

That is why I was stunned to learn that there is little information available on Mindreader.  I wanted to research the book a bit before writing this review to see what its public response was like, and any societal impact it may have had. But I was surprised to find nothing of the kind. Here’s what little I could gather:

C. Terry Cline, Jr. was born in my native state of Alabama in 1935. He wrote multiple works of fiction starting 1975 until his death in May of 2013. There is very little information on the internet about him or his works outside of what Goodreads has to offer, and an obituary article written in honor of his passing. Mindreader has only had 2 editions: the first when it was initially released, and a paperback version with new cover art which released in 2016. Most of Cline’s books have received new covers since his death, as his wife, Judith Richards, has since been promoting his works. Mindreader has a handful of scores on Goodreads, but there are no written reviews to be found anywhere; not even on Amazon. 

Mindreader, at its core, is a work of fiction. One simply can’t shove it into a single genre. It’s a suburban mystery. It’s a sci-fi supernatural mystery, too. It’s a psychotic drama. It’s an action-thriller. It’s the Cold War meets Jason Bourne. I could put this book on too many shelves for me to count on my two hands. The narrowest I could place it is dystopian, but even then it doesn’t reach extremes like that of Bradbury or Orwell. 

Mindreader follows the life of David Morgan, a man gifted with the ability to read minds. How did he gain this ability? The story thankfully leaves his origins mostly a mystery to the reader, allowing us to ask those questions ourselves. The science behind his abilities are also just vague enough to incur a sense of awe, while providing just enough of an explanation to feel grounded. Not only can David read other’s minds, but he can influence them. In addition to controlling others’ thoughts, he can also literally bend peoples’ brainwaves, making him appear invisible or seize any noises he makes. David keeps his ability under wraps until he is introduced to a German psychologist named Rudolph Schmidt who has secretly been watching him his whole life. With the world ripping at the seams amidst the Cold War, David feels more and more of a need to use his ability to oust the conflict. He travels the world making speeches and influencing the masses, gaining a larger and larger following. When his cult grows too large, making him feel like a god among men, David must learn to keep his example restrained, or else risk the destruction of the entire world by what he sought to abolish. 

Mindreader’s premise should be campy, tasteless, and closer to that a of a science fiction novel. It instead yanks the reader out of reality and into a fictionalized Cold War America which lives and breathes simply by mental delusion. The first act wisely introduces readers to David through his family life, career, and his living out the American dream. This not only allows readers to know David on the most basic emotional level, but eases them into his supernatural mind reading powers. As the turmoil of the American and Soviet nuclear crisis reaches its boiling point, David feels called to aid humanity in its plight with his augmented brainpower. This allows the second act to gradually depict him traveling around, spreading his knowledge among the masses so that his reach is out of control by the third. David struggles in the third act to contain the mess he has created so that he might restore what he originally tried to achieve. Mixing in elements like David’s family conflict and Schmidt’s stalking of David’s secret make for great drama amongst great storytelling. It’s a plot which manages to come full circle in all it sets out to convey, with all character arcs receiving closure. 

What makes Mindreader such a convicting novel is the way it handles such convicting commentary. Mindreader and David himself have a lot to say on humanity, politics, leadership, religion, and most importantly, war. It explores what really leads man to go to war and how the effects of war are held in bitterness generations down the line. It focuses not so much on the physical consequences of the actions of people of power, but the mental, emotional motivations behind them. It gives an ideal example of how man should respond to such heinous acts of greedy government, but also owns up to the fact that greedy government isn’t likely to change its position. When those in power are truly put to the test under the greatest emotional duress is when they finally gain their humanity and consider what is best for the people. It’s a highly emotional payoff to a conflict which escalates for the entire book. The curt resolution to follow it made me drop the book to the floor. The manner in which Mindreader addresses the nuclear crisis of the late 20th century begs the question of what if everyone in the world had read this book at the time? How would it have changed people’s opinions? So many other books, films, and creative content of the Cold War quickly became products of their time and their messages simply lacked timelessness. While in many ways Mindreader’s commentary is a product of the early 1980's Cold War era, it equally applies to the world today. In times marked by political and ideological divisiveness, Mindreader shows what really leads to such bickering and how politicians can take advantage of us to lead to inevitable war. With such convicting commentary, Mindreader never gives too much, or feels too blatant. It manages to intertwine its commentary with its emotional swells in what is a rare combination of message and storytelling.

For all Mindreader has to offer, I must say it is now among my favorite books. While this review has mostly focused on the message it offers, there is so much more to it. Like I mentioned earlier, it has sci-fi, drama, dystopia, Jason-Bourne-esc action-thrills, and a blanket of Cold War culture. It’s a book which progressively treads new waters while appropriately tying it all into a great story. 

You can purchase Mindreader from Amazon here.

-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; July 2017

Book Review: Thieve's Quarry

D.B. Jackson lands yet another marvelous historical fantasy in Thieve’s Quarry, the second installment of his Thieftaker series. Thieftaker is among the greatest historical fiction series out there, let alone historical fantasy. A story in a genre blend which is easily campy, leeching off of the mere presence of prominent historical figures, manages to not only tell its own story, but reverently live and breath its chosen setting. The dialogue and writing style of the Thieftaker books feel like they were pulled straight from revolutionary-era manuscripts, while also retaining readability. Like much of Jackson’s work, it’s a fantasy which manages to rise above the rest. 

Thieve’s Quarry opens with Ethan Kaille on a standard hunt for a stolen good. When his mission is intercepted by Sephira Pryce, a grim series of events force him to use magic in order to save an innocent man. This reveals his conjuring abilities to Pryce, causing her to hire her own conjurer to combat Kaille. When a mass grave is discovered on one of His Majesty’s ships at the dawn of the British occupation of Boston, Ethan is consulted to determine who committed the murder, as there are no physical signs of death among the bodies. As Ethan tracks down suspect conjurers, each culprit is murdered one by one before he can even reach them. Convinced that the killer is a greater threat than he anticipated, Kaille keeps his friends close and his enemies closer, going so far as to warn Sephira Pryce for her own safety. 

Quarry’s greatest feat is the development of Ethan Kaille. He shows a genuine concern for his arch nemesis, Pryce, and even works in junction with her to take down a more dangerous threat. It makes him the better man in what is otherwise a bickering conflict. Kaille also struggles with his convictions on the subject of the British occupation. In Theiftaker he was a loyalist, disgusted by the Sons of Liberty and their antics. Here, when the British enter Boston, Kaille sees nothing but injustice all around him as regulars quarter themselves in peoples’ homes. These changes in his motivations will likely lead to further character development in future books, and possibly turning him into a brash revolutionary.

Many old faces from Thieftaker return in Quarry, but with just enough face time to make way for plenty of new ones. Kaille seeks help from a variety of individuals from high-on-the-hog aristocrats, to bottom-feeding bar owners, to revolutionaries and crooks alike. Their presence breathes life into Jackson’s Boston, making the world all the more believable. Just as in Thieftaker, Boston feels like a place the reader can step into. Jackson’s understanding of the landscape of the town in its pre-revolution glory is on full display, as well as his knowledge of colonial customs. It creates a story whose characters are just as enjoyable to read about as its own world, not growing too detailed or monotonous. 

The series once again manages to hold its own in Quarry, despite its setting being among the most popular periods of history. Quarry could have so easily taken advantage of the plethora of historical figures involved with the Sons of Liberty, yet takes a more reserved approach by only making use minor figures and events. It proves that it can tell its story with its plot, characters, and spirit of its setting, rather than copping-out for the reputation of the Washingtons and Franklins of the time. I’m sure as the series nears the revolution, more familiar faces will begin to appear. But two books in a row with such minimal use of major historical figures proves that the series means business. 

Where Thieve’s Quarry ultimately shines and manages to surpass its predecessor is in its pacing. As great as Theiftaker was, it was a bit sluggish in the manner it handled its mystery, at least compared to its sequel. There is no wild goose chase to be had in Quarry, as Ethan Kaille makes a relentless chase for justice and for his own life. New developments lie around every corner, as Kaille races against the clock to take out a killer before even more innocent are murdered, and even his own friends. It is between this and the development of its characters that makes Thieve’s Quarry a great sequel, not simply a rehash of the first book or a "Season 2" of the series. 

As someone who has read a decent amount of fantasy, the Theiftaker series is among the most quality. D.B. Jackson is a truly talented writer. Theiftaker is a premise which should be silly as all get out, but the amount of history and fantasy it offers and the ethos in which the series is written gives me confidence to recommend it to both historians and fantasy fans alike. Yet its appeal reaches beyond those two groups, which is why I can’t help but recommend the series to anyone looking for some quality reads. 

You can purchase Thieve’s Quarry from Amazon here.

-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; July 2017

Book Review: The Galactic Satori Chronicles, Book 2: Kron

My latest reading endeavor brought me to The Galactic Satori Chronicles, Book 2: Kron. I reviewed the first installment of the series, Earth, a over a month ago. Those of you who read my review of Earth know that my feelings toward it are mostly negative.  I felt the book had a lot of potential, but miserably failed to achieve that potential. The first act was solid, introducing great sci-fi concepts and what felt like genuine characters. The pace plummeted in the second act as the story grew increasingly more boring in what was essentially a wild goose chase with no destination. Because the story wasn’t going anywhere, the characters grew more and more obnoxious as their comical personalities were all the book had to work with. The third act presented an overblown climax which didn’t feel earned, and ended on a unfulfilling cliffhanger. 

I have since gone and read other opinions about Earth, both positive and negative. The positive reviews praise it as a page-turner, a outstanding sci-fi piece, and even "an achievement". The negative reviews exposed a number of issues with the book which completely went over my head in my initial review, but I couldn’t help but agree with them. 

One of those issues is that the characters take the stakes of the story too lightly.  They are essentially tasked with saving Earth, and they approach the conflict with all the youthful drama one could expect.  This youthful whim was acceptable in the first act because the the characters had no prior exposure to the alien technology they were forced to bear. As they learned of their destiny as Earth’s saviors, their lackadaisical attitude continued and ultimately came off as "high school drama", as one reviewer put it. It turned what would have otherwise been a high-stakes sci-fi action drama into a Disney Channel original comedy. One of the few characters who took their circumstances seriously (who I particularly enjoyed) was unfortunately killed off in the end. 

Another issue which was littered throughout Earth which I failed to elaborate on in my review was how nearly the entire ensemble is influenced by their sex drive. I mentioned that one of the characters was lusty, but it failed to dawn on me how almost the entire main group was like that. It’s like they fail to realize that the fate of the world is at stake because they are constantly (and I mean constantly) looking for the next opportunity to get busy. 

Braker and Hicks gave Earth a plot with very high stakes, but their own characters didn’t own up to those stakes out of their own ambition. I credit various reviews on making me realize these quite jarring aspects of the book which went overlooked. In case I already didn’t like the book enough, there was no question that I loathed it after reading said reviews.

…But that isn’t to say I wasn’t open to more.

Like I said before, I felt that Earth had a ton of potential going for it. Simply the fact that there was a second novel meant another opportunity for the story to reach that potential. And, in many ways, Kron does live up to that potential…for the most part. 

Fundamentally, Kron is lightyears better than Earth. For one, it is a significantly shorter novel, byover 100 pages, in fact. This not only makes it a less taxing read, but the book itself is much easier to hold in my hands (though after reading IT, I can’t complain about the physical size of any book). The book did a surprisingly good job reconnecting me with characters I felt skeptical revisiting. Overall, the book is more enjoyable and eventful than its predecessor. But where it really hits home is in one particular aspect:

The plot! Kron’s plot is so much better than Earth’s. Rather than a meandering, dull plot which has little occupy itself with, Kron manages to not only find a good story, but expound upon so many questions presented in the first book. The first act, much like Earth, is strong. It’s relentless, action packed, and reconnects the reader with the characters. The first act (and the book as a whole) keeps things fresh by executing a device which Earth didn’t utilize enough: switching perspectives. It understands that the kind of story it is telling, in order to keep the plot moving, must present itself from various perspectives. The most investing parts of Earth were when the perspective shifted to the enemy aliens on their planet, but it rarely did so. Kron’s first act shows us what occurs on the enemy planet frequently, as well as how it plays out with events on Earth. The perspective also shifts between three different human teams combatting the aliens and how their roles contribute to the main goal. 

While Kron’s first act and overall plot are far superior to Earth’s, it unfortunately suffers from two blemishing issues: execution and character development. 

First, the issue of character development. Kron's focus is once again on the main character from Earth, who hasn’t changed a bit since his last outing. He is still lusty, crass, and treats every issue lightheartedly. This didn’t excite me in the slightest, especially given that a good number of the tolerable characters from the first book are killed off in the opening chapters. In fact, a number of the most likable and interesting characters from the first book are seen little to none in this installment. Overall, most of the characters have learned to treat their circumstances a little more seriously, but the main character is still too lackadaisical toward the stakes, allowing his lust to get in the way of his decision making. There are also a number of relationships which failed to cross over in the sequel. Characters who I swear had nothing to do with each other in Earth are suddenly gushing over each other in Kron. Unless I missed something at the end of Earth, these romances came completely out of the blue (not that Earth made me care that much about character romances, anyway).

While the plot of Kron is near-perfect in my opinion, its execution and presentation are downright awful. As I stated before, the first act is flawless. The characters are still fighting the threat from the first book, and a group of them are transported to the enemy planet, which was already interesting enough. The second act, much like in Earth, takes a plummet in terms of the pacing, and its subject matter is much worse. Again, the plot itself is great, it’s the presentation that’s lousy. The beginning of the second act introduces the concept that humans and an alien race will have to breed in order to bring peace and produce a superior race to triumph in their plight. I have absolutely no problems with this concept, and I have no doubt that it’s been brought up in sci-fi before. The way in which this event is depicted is entirely too graphic, and it tainted the book for me. 

The entire first half of Kron’s second act is a massive, over-the-top, unneeded orgy. The amount of sexual detail the book dares to explore in executing this plot is some of the most perverted literature I have ever read. In case delving into the sexual fantasy they choose to explore isn’t disgusting enough, the simple fact that the human character finds pleasure in it completely pulled me out of the novel. There was a way to present this which didn’t have to be so explicit. It is one thing for a book to contain a brief sex scene which produces drama that echoes throughout the rest of the story. It is another thing to spend chapter after chapter devoted to describing the sexual experience. The former creates a more dramatic and emotional payoff. The latter gives into the mindlessness of human pleasure-seeking rather than trying to tell a good story aided by a dramatic moment.

As someone who takes the execution fiction literature seriously, I have always held to this philosophy: sex has its place in literature, but if the story is completely driven by it then I may as well be reading erotica. That’s exactly what this book is: space erotica. Illustrious use of sex, likejuvenile use of swearing, and mindless use of action, can easily be used in excess as a cop-out to make a work such as a book or film more appealing to an audience, rather than diligent effort to make a quality story. It just shows laziness on the creator’s part.

Now, those who object to my position will probably think "You shouldn’t be reviewing this as a sci-fi book, but an adult sci-fi book". "Just because it wasn’t what you expected doesn’t give you any right to be angry". Well, I have every right to be angry, for a number of reasons. For one, Amazon lists Kron as "Science Fiction", not "Erotic Science Fiction" (which is another category on Amazon; I checked). Another thing is that I personally met the authors of this book at a convention, and bought it from them there. They specifically gave me a disclaimer that one of their other books which I was about to buy was heavy in adult content, but said that the GSC series were pure sci-fi. What’s more peculiar is that Braker, in the author’s note, encourages readers to check out his other works for more erotic sci-fi. They gave me no disclaimer that GSC contained erotic content. I bought these books because I was told they were sci-fi and I wanted to read sci-fi. I didn’t want alien erotica.

The second act fails to recover from its little sex-trip. This act, much like in Earth, is intensely slow with little to nothing going on. The alien world, which I found so interesting in Earth and in the first act of Kron, miraculously manages to be even more boring than Earth. The second and third acts rarely switch perspective to the characters who remained on Earth. I couldn’t believe myself, but there were parts when I wanted to scream "Go back to Earth!" after the boredom that was the first book. The second act does manage to escalate toward the latter half and the entire third act is mostly solid, yet once again fails to hit the landing at the end. There are also dozens of events which are introduced but are never revisited. There was an entire chapter introducing an assassin character whom I thought was going to be really cool, but she is never even mentioned again. The book almost spreads itself too thin in all it tries to accomplish in building a universe, or trying establish plots to be executed later in the series.

Believe it or not, I do draw a healthy share of positives from Kron. Much like the last book, it continues to introduce astounding sci-fi concepts, and unlike the last book, actually explores them. Again, I had no problem with the idea of cross-species alien hybrids in a work of fiction. It was the way it was presented which ruined my experience. Admittedly, some of the consequences the characters face as a result of their cross-breeding are handled well from a dramatic standpoint. I was just always reminded of the dark places the second act dared to venture because of it. Also, the queen of the aliens, who ultimately executes the plot, is a really great character. She’s easily the most complex and well-thought out character in the book, and her backstory is the most enjoyable to learn about. It’s clear that the authors did a good job with making her genuinely care for her people, willing to go to great lengths in order to ensure their survival. Her goals and sympathy cause her to change her positions a bit, and it’s always great seeing characters get out of their comfort zones. 

But as many odd-job positives I can find about the book, there are still many negatives. The story as a whole lacks focus, and is really confused in terms of how it presents the characters’ goals. In one sense, it creates some indecisiveness in the reader as to who they should side with, but it confused me just as much as it confused the characters. I didn’t know who they should side with, who was on whose side, and why there was so much uninspired double-crossing and backstabbing around every corner. This, combined with the number of confused relationships, creates a divisiveness among the characters which fails to track, let alone produce drama. There are also a number of instances in which the writing style was downright jarring. Too many times Braker and Hicks were telling me what the characters felt, or the how the circumstances of the plot were playing out, rather than showing me through physical emotion and drama. I got tired of reading "he felt this", "she felt that", and "this had to happen in order to do this", as the characters mulled over circumstances and relationships I simply didn’t care about. 

So, what’s the verdict with Kron? Is it worse or better than Earth? Well, I would say both are equally flawed, but I’m indecisive as to which is worse. Earth, as long and boring as it is, is at least more focused. Kron is more exciting, more action packed, shorter, and more enjoyable to read. But it lacks focus, making it confused and difficult to follow as a whole. Plus, I don’t know if I’ll ever get past those scenes. It is more than evident that Braker and Hicks both have a real vision for these books. The effort shows in the overall plot of the two books and the dozens of inventive sci-fi concepts they explore. There are numerous tidbits which show this effort, such as how well the character of the queen was handled. It’s also clear that they have a genuine fanbase for their stories. But for me, I wouldn’t recommend these books in a heartbeat. They are simply too flawed in my opinion for me to consider them good books, let alone good sci-fi books. If you’re into raunchy sci-fi rather than focus and substance, certainly give these a shot. Other than that, I can only recommend that you give them a pass. 

-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; July 2017

Book Review(s): Architects of Destiny and Veil of Reality

We are back to sci-fi with this review. As much sci-fi as I’ve been reading lately, I was afraid I’d be moaning "Here we go again" with these books. I was glad to be proven completely wrong. Word on the street is that Amy Duboff is on the rise to a high spot on the sci-fi literature totem pole. The first two installments of her currently seven-part series, Cadicle, are proof of this claim.  In two extremely short books, Duboff establishes a wildly original story with a scale spanning lightyears and generations which instantly earns the status of 'saga'. 

The first book, Architects of Destiny, had me hooked from the first page, and not because of what the bare story had to offer. The book’s greatest feat is that it is 100% character-driven. With this, good character interactions through dialogue and emotion are deeply important, and Duboff understands this perfectly. Through what is basically a mock-lightsaber fight in the opening scene, the interactions between the hero and his trainer present believable characters with believable relationships which echo throughout the rest of the novel. 

In case the fact that the book is character driven doesn’t immediately force me to recommend this book, the story itself is well orchestrated. Its initial premise is familiar. Cris Sietinen wants something more out of life, so he escapes to the stars, joins a smuggling crew, and tours the galaxy. In many ways, it is Luke Skywalker’s ambitions with a new coat of paint. If the characters and their interactions weren’t as good, I probably would have lost interest. Yet in time, the story fledges out to something much greater. 

We learn that Cris is heir to a wealthy dynasty obsessed with upholding its lineage, and willing to resort to any means of doing so. Cris also has a telekinetic ability which is virtually outlawed, and he is recruited by the only organization which will train him with his gift. Excitement takes a back seat as Cris trains in his telekinetic abilities, while behind the scenes his life is being secretly controlled. Turns out he plays a much larger role in the fate of the universe, a fate which involves a secret war against an alien race. It also turns out that he might not be the solution to the conflict, but someone further in his own bloodline. 

Architects of Destiny is very much a prequel. It is very short, only about 150 pages, and I managed to read it in a day. But what I got out of such a short read was truly remarkable. It is difficult to put to words how Duboff manages to establish such high stakes and such a massive universe in just one book with a story that isn’t world-driven. 

Veil of Reality, to my wondrous surprise, begins roughly twenty years after Architects of Destiny. Cris now fathers a son, Wil, who shows even greater achievement in telekinetic ability. Wil is kidnapped, and Cris flies to unknown reaches of space to find him. His pursuit leads him to discover the war which he was never meant to know about, and further, the role he plays in it. Cris learns that his entire existence has been engineered for generations, and that his own son is the savior to end the war, essentially wiping out an entire race. 

Veil of Reality spends a lot of time grinding through the technicals of the story. This allows for time to see Cris and his son react to their orchestrated destiny. Wil’s youthful whims of tackling a massive undertaking make him naive, despite his giftedness. Cris comes to grips with the fact that he has to take a back seat in this plot, while also being tortured by the notion that the reason for his family’s existence is a lie.

The supposed villains are given highly relatable arcs in Veil of Reality. The government officials residing over Cris hate to break the bad news to him, yet are steadfast in their goal. They know the consequences and the pure evil of their actions, yet are committed to a cause for the sake of humanity. It’s a believable position. The alien villain in the war is also willing to find a compromise with the humans, to which many of his subordinates passionately disagree. It makes for a lot of conflict, and thus, a lot of drama. 

The first books in the Cadicle series hit the mark in many aspects. I’ve already gushed over characters, but the story is also handled well. The more original take on the planet-bound youth who desires something more is a smart move. The simple fact that there is such a massive time gap between the two books allows for major shifts in character since they have changed over years. This keeps things interesting so that the original ensemble isn’t simply presented with a new conflict out of the blue. 

Though Cadicle is a character-driven saga, it isn’t a one-size-fits-all story. This is one instance where a series truly needed to be a massive sci-fi epic, and thus earns the title of 'space opera'. The scale and stakes of the story can only be fathomed in a massive world which spans galaxies. Yet despite such a massive world, like I mentioned earlier, the books aren’t world-driven. Cadicle could have easily relied on sci-fi tropes like space battles, blaster shoot-outs, or other material staples of the genre to be an enjoyable story. The series instead uses these tropes sparingly in order for the reader to appreciate such moments more. It reminds me of use of lightsabers in the original Star Wars trilogy. As much as lightsabers are a staple of Star Wars, they weren’t used that much in the original trilogy. Presence of a lightsaber typically implied a special moment, one which could be appreciated and not overused. Cadicle uses its exciting action scenes sparingly in order for the reader to appreciate them more. It instead relies on its characters and story to keep the momentum going. On the flip side, it isn’t a story completely driven by discussion of politics which become boring or impossible to understand. It’s a rare instance which manages to find the right balance of both the physical and emotional side of a story which blends so well together that makes for a great narrative. 

Duboff already has a great series going with just two books. She has crafted a saga with Cadicle which is littered with potential for prequels and obviously sequels, as there are five more books in the series. It’s an expansive universe with a surprisingly "down-to-earth" story. Rather than relying on the tangibles of its genre, it uses the scope of its own world to its full advantage for the sake of the narrative. It’s the makings of a timeless sci-fi series which is sure to rise above the rest. 

You can purchase Architects of Destiny from Amazon here.

You can purchase Veil of Reality from Amazon here

-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; July 2017

Book Review: The Scholar, The Sphinx, and the Fang of Fenrir

What is the typical go-to means of describing a good sequel? You guessed it! Simply refer to it as "the 'Empire Strikes Back' of the series". I would say the same for The Scholar, The Sphinx, and The Fang of Fenrir, but I’d like to draw an analogy from another ’80’s film series: Back To The Future. Back To The Future is its own self contained story which hints at a continuation. Back To The Future Part II functions on its own as a sequel, but the ending drives on the fact that the over-arching story of Back To The Future needs to be concluded in a third installment. This is very much the backbone to the plot of the second novel of the Scholar and Sphinx series, even though the device somewhat works against it. 

Fang of Fenrir begins eighteen months after Shades of Nyx. David Sandoval is happily married living in Paris, and business is well. When a creature arrives on David’s doorstep which inflicts him with accelerated aging, David instantly knows something is up involving the Curtain. He is sent on a journey to find a means of curing his aging, only to discover that a dark creature is after him and something he owns. David is accompanied by a new ally, a witch named Baba Yaga, who begrudgingly agrees to assist him on his quest. With Baba's help, David scrambles up his former allies from the Curtain in order to discover the beast that’s after him and how to defeat it, all while being pursued by some familiar faces. 

Anyone who gushed over the whimsical and nonsensical fantasy world Cook presented in Shades of Nyx will love it all the same, if not more, here. After such a zany first installment with off-the-rails logic, I had no idea how such a world could be more imaginable, but it still manages to deliver through awe inspiring mythology and magic. The mythological elements in particular work to Fang of Fenrir’s advantage.  So much of the world and characters rest on a diverse range of humanity’s mythologies which seamlessly blend in a world where Thor may as well sun-bathe with Ra. 

The world of Scholar and Sphinx is also much darker this time. With more threatening villains poised against the characters, the darker tone feels appropriate. The first novel played it safe for the most part, and while the second is still clean and appropriate for children, it does deal with some darker, sometimes gorier themes. It’s still nothing younger readers won’t grow used to after reading the first book. 

The introduction of Baba Yaga was much needed, as she is an all-around lovable character. Her magical abilities feel appropriate to assist the characters when necessary. She is with David for a majority of the plot and her presence brings something new to the story. They have great chemistry together, almost better than David and Acacia in the first book, and they both console each other in their weaknesses and struggles.

The reason I feel so strongly for Baba’s character is because, aside from our hero, David, the returning ensemble from Shades of Nyx doesn’t bring much of anything new to the table. A. R. Cook’s ability to express genuine emotion and bonds between the characters is still present, no doubt. But the relationships between the returning characters don’t really evolve. This is especially jarring, given how well David and Acacia’s relationship was handled in the first book. I was without a doubt excited to see so many faces return, but most of them are the same people they were at the end of Shades of Nyx. After so much outstanding character and relational development seen in the first book, there was much to be desired from the sequel. 

Where Fang of Fenrir ultimately falls flat is in its plot. This book, for it's length, needed to be more jam-packed with some excitement.  I get the feeling that this and the third book should be one long arc, but are instead split into two shorter parts. The story opens strong, and the entire first act is very well orchestrated. The darker tone is on full display, and readers get a sense of the stakes threatening the characters. The second acts becomes sluggish after its opening, and mostly involves characters going to various parts of the world to find items with little to no action. With that, the climax, though well handled and grand in scale, doesn't feel earned.

The goals of the villains are also extremely confusing. Not only is there a new villain, but a villain from the first book returns, and a reincarnation of another villain from the first book appears as well. It's a great match-up, and all of them essentially have the same goal of defeating the hero characters, but they also seek control of the world in their own ways. It’s unclear who is manipulating who to achieve the other’s goals, and which of them has more power over the others. It not only creates a disconnect between the reader and the villains, but it gives the hero characters too much busy-work and exposition in order to defeat them which is why the second act can be so slow. I have no doubt that the villains will come full circle in the third novel, but there could have been some more clarity in this one. 

Don’t get me wrong, though I have my gripes with the plot and character development, Fang of Fenrir is far from a bad book. Much of what was good about Shades of Nyx is still there, and there is plenty of it to be enjoyed. The cliffhanger at the end has me curious and excited as to how the series will conclude. Perhaps I simply need to finish the series to appreciate the overall arc. But with a slow second act, minimal character development, and some confusing villain goals, it leaves much to be desired after such a strong predecessor. 

You can purchase The Scholar, The Sphinx, and the Fang of Fenrir from Amazon here.

-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; July 2017

Stephen King's Generational Handicap

This year, my first endeavor in summer reading is Stephen King’s IT. Upon viewing the record-breaking trailer for the book’s 2017 film adaptation, I simply had to read it, despite it’s truly daunting length. As of the time of this writing, I have 250 pages to go.

So far, I hate it (no pun intended). For one, the length has every reason to be daunting because it is entirely too long for what it tries to accomplish. Second, it isn’t written very well, which is the catalyst for my third reason for hating it: it isn’t very scary. Stephen King, dubbed "The indisputable King of Horror" (TIME), "dark and sinister" (Washington Post), and "a possessed figure" (L.A Herald Examiner), isn’t so much scary as he is silly when it comes to IT. A book so well renowned as blood-curdling is too monotonous to inflict any real terror for me as a reader. It is safe to say that the work gained its popularity due to the overrated and corny 1990 miniseries of the same name starring Tim Curry. The popularity of said miniseries is likely what green-lit the remake in the first place. For now, I’m not going to judge the film for it’s quality based on its source material or my own speculation, as it has yet to release.

I will admit that I have a soft spot for King, which is another excuse for why I decided to read IT in the first place. His nonfiction work, On Writing, is without question the reason I aspired to take up penmanship. The book is, in a sense, both a humbling manual for writing and King’s autobiography, and is a book I have recommended to countless people. This was the first Stephen King book I ever read, so, naturally, I expected everything he’s put to paper to be a masterpiece; his critics would agree. The first fiction Stephen King work I read was The Shining. While I didn’t find it strikingly terrifying (as the review blurbs on the back cover indicated), I still found it to be a good read. I would later go on to read Carrie and 'Salem’s Lot, and I felt they were just as good if not better. My most dangerous takeaway from all three of these books is that I considered them to be top-tier literary quality due to the amount of credit I gave King with On Writing. I thankfully read plenty of much more scholarly works before reading IT

My reading of IT has made me realize just how bogus King’s reputation as both a writer and a horror writer can be (this doesn’t mean that all of his works are "bad", per-say, but I will address this later). A simple glance at his reviews by some of the most world-renowned journals of the late 20th century gives the impression that King will go down in history as the Charles Dickens of our time. He certainly is from the standpoint of financial success. But is this reception completely bogus, or is it just my opinion? Well, first and foremost, it is my just opinion, but more importantly, many agree with me on this matter. There is a growing number of people who are willing to admit that Stephen King isn’t all his fans or the press make him out to be. While this could mean that general opinion of his work is shifting, I believe it has more to do with the age of his readers. As of this writing, I am 18 years old, nearly 19. I was not alive when Carrie released in 1974, and I have been raised in an entirely different climate of horror. What needs to be considered isn’t as much the fact that Stephen King’s works are bad, but that they don’t age well. 

The reason I and many others don’t find King to be scary comes down to a simple statement: What was scary then isn’t scary now. It also certainly isn’t scary if the same formula used to inflict horror in 1974 is still being recycled to this day. In order to understand this, we must take a brief look into the history of horror.

The modern use of the word 'horror' in storytelling is often associated as a genre. But at the very heart of the word is an emotion. "Bobby is lost in the woods and no one is around to find him." Bobby may as well be in horror. Horror has always been a medium of storytelling ever since humans conceived the idea of ghost stories, and then conceived the even greater idea of sharing them around a campfire. The dawning of horror in literature and as a genre was seen in the late 18th century with gothic literature. This isn’t to say that horror wasn’t an element used in literature before then, but this was where the genre began to appear most frequently with the intent of creating a macabre, chilling atmosphere. At the time, this was exactly how authors of the genre terrified their readers, creating atmospheric horror rather than slashing murder and gore. Gothic writers of the 18th and 19th centuries included Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley, Edgar Allen Poe, and much later in the early 20th century, H.P. Lovecraft. 

The arrival of film in the 20th Century brought a whole new approach to horror as a genre. Though adaptations of gothic writers' stories were always adapted to film, horror movies weren’t popularized until the 1950’s. The post-World War II "Red Scare" saw an exodus of whimsical themes in film, to exploration of the unknown. Fear of the unknown, to be precise. Monsters both big and small were selling tickets at picture shows across the world, and horror films would continue to evolve throughout the decades. Monsters became more creative, and later the "monsters" we all feared became just as human as us, manifest as cold-blooded killers. Films became gorier as practical effects improved. By the ’70’s and ’80’s, horror became more psychological, though traditional monsters were no strangers to the big screen, even if they were on the decline.With changing culture, horror film continued to adapt with the 1999 release of The Blair Witch Project, the dawn of the "found footage" sub-genre. This style was executed in wildly popular films of the new millennium, most notably Paranormal Activity. In the modern age, quality horror is almost purely psychological, but also situational or practical. Sometimes, simply placing characters in a terrifying situation, such as survivinga savage post-apocalypse, or escaping a kidnapping, is all that is needed to rack one’s brain. 

The repeating theme in the account of horror is that the genre had to evolve. Horror couldn’t keep doing the same thing over and over again or it would no longer serve its purpose. It evolved physically, such as from literature to film, but it also evolved in its storytelling, getting more graphic and tangible. Tactics also die out. Many horror fans of today complain about the number of jump-scares Hollywood uses to write easy films. Sometimes films are nerve-racking based on their subject matter and the time they are released. The political climate of the current decade is largely why The Purge trilogy managed to be so frightening, and thus so popular. 

What doesn’t change is that works of horror almost always have to stay relevant to the times, and often fall victim to becoming products of their time. It’s a genre that isn’t easy to make timeless. Sure, there are countless stories and films which will always scare us, but works of this status are rare. We can always look back and gain some enjoyment from monster movies of the 1950’s; we can enjoy their effects, and admire a style of filmmaking from days gone by. But do they scare us? Only rarely. There aren’t many films from before the 1970’s mentioned in the 21st century which people are scared of, unless age or nostalgia factors in. The ones which still manage to frighten people are more rare the further in the past. 

This raises one big question: How did Stephen King’s horror stories manage to succeed long after the great gothic writers were in their graves, and amidst an ever-growing and adapting climate of horror films. King’s ability to exhume popular horror in literature, given the time, must have been quite the accomplishment. But again, what was scary then isn’t necessarily scary now. Though many of his works may be great books, they aren’t necessarily gut-wrenching for a reader of my age raised in the current horror climate. 

Firstly, horror has changed drastically since King’s debut in the ’70’s. I grew up in the age of jump-scares and the current horror climate is that of psychological and situational terror. Secondly, horror is much more democratized in this day and age. I’m not the biggest horror fan when it comes to film, but it’s easy for anyone to unintentionally view a horror film trailer in a movie theater which is miles more frightening than a Stephen King novel. This occurred numerous times before I even turned 10. Also, it’s easy for anyone to view horror films with the click of a button thanks to Netflix. Horror has also broken into TV with shows like The Walking Dead, American Horror Story, and countless others. Simply put, horror in this day and age is more available than it was at King’s debut. When King’s work first released, horror films were confined to the walls of the theater, and kept out of reach by over-protective parents. There was no Netflix, so they weren’t as easy to come across. I have no doubt that my generation is perfectly capable of experiencing fear from a book, and even enjoying King’s work. But so much horror is at our fingertips that King doesn’t come off as scary to us as an unsuspecting reader in 1974. 

Now, though it is certainly clear that horror adapts with changing times, it doesn’t mean that the genre, or Stephen King, can’t be timeless. 

As mentioned earlier, The Shining was the first of King’s fiction I ever read. Though I didn’t find it grippingly blood-curdling, I did find it atmospherically frightening, much like the style of many of the gothic writers. The Shining was chilling because its characters were isolated, far from civilization in a seemingly haunted place, and one of their own was unstable. Though there wasn’t a strikingly frightening scene like in Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation, I was on-edge the entire time. Unfortunately, I was on-edge for an underwhelming payoff. Carrie, my second King book, also kept me on-edge. While it is a well-known and aged story even for those who haven’t read the book, the way King presents it is clever. He alternates between traditional storytelling and written evidence of eye-witness accounts. It keeps the reader wondering how the characters got to the ending, even if eye-witness POV has been used in literature before. Though the only book of Stephen King’s original trio which I consider to be truly scary is 'Salem’s Lot, I still feel that all three of them are well-written books. This also brings up the question of whether King’s works need to be viewed as horror. He’s written great stories, just not all of them are scary, per say.

But this also makes me question how the gothic writers like Stoker, Poe, and Lovecraft managed to write such horrifying stories and be timeless, yet King’s age horribly. I haven’t met anyone who wasn’t at least slightly chilled by The Raven, The Tale-tell Heart, or The Fall of the House of Usher. I’ve read Dracula, and I found it unsettling despite having been written over a century ago and using such dated language of its time. I even have a Lovecraft Cthulhu anthology of which I’ve only read a six-page story and I found it eons more enjoyable, frightening, and interesting than the 908 pages I’ve read of IT

The works of these giants go to show that horror literature doesn’t have to be a product of the times. I’ve already examined how the subject matter of stories King writes don’t necessarily mix with readers of my generation. This leaves us with how his writing style has aged, or maybe how it’s just plain bad. 

The Shining, Carrie, and 'Salem’s Lot are all written well. IT isn’t. Where King’s writing flaws are at the forefront in IT, they are simply nuanced in his original trio. I, for one, can’t track how King’s writing style has adapted over the years (the works I’ve mentioned thus far are the only ones I've read as of the time of this writing). But it’s clear that King became obsessed with use of a plain flawed style of writing which basic high school English classes teach to avoid. 

He goes into entirely too much detail. IT has dozens upon dozens of moments which would be scary if King didn’t take so much time explaining events as they happen. This includes excessive sexual detail, which is not only awkward to read, but has me convinced he’d rather write erotica instead of horror. King also uses an unnecessary amount of swearing in his writing. Sex and swearing have their place, but just because they are used them doesn’t make the work edgier or more literary if they aren’t executed well. Oftentimes his de-facto means of chilling gore is use of blood, but just because blood is present doesn’t make me sick at my stomach. His supernatural entities are hard to understand and oftentimes just plain silly, his expression of internal thought is always awkward, and he has a knack for dated pop-culture references. 

I’m not saying that King’s original three works are devoid of these issues; they were most certainly present. It just seems that between The Shining and IT his writing style took favor with his flaws. Again, I can’t comment on anything else he’s written. I’m simply making an observation based on what I’ve read, and gathering observations of fellow readers. 

It all comes back to my original statement: What was scary then won’t always be scary now. I can’t say whether his seemingly poor and lengthy writing style was considered scary as hell in the ’80’s because I didn’t grow up in the horror climate of the ’80’s. King’s work may have been spine-tingling for his day, but my generation isn’t as likely to find his stories as much as a disturbing because we’ve been raised in such a different climate of horror, both in style and availability.

Even for a casual fan of horror like myself, I can already tell the genre is going in new, innovative directions. There is a new app on the market which tells gripping thrillers by allowing readers to scroll through text message threads. I’ve seen demos of the concept in ads, and I was honest-to-God shaken, yet interested in what they were doing. Given that filmmakers are having to try harder and harder with innovative ways to tell stories and get audiences to the box office, our obsession with technology could lead to a new form of storytelling. We are so familiar with something such as text threads that it could be the next shift in the medium as we know it. Even if not through this app, it is inevitable that horror and storytelling will manifest itself in a new medium sooner or later. Literature will have to find a way to compete. Stephen King, if he is still around, would likely go into further generational decline.

Though I have mostly criticized King for his writing style and subject matter of his stories, he is the first to admit some of his flaws. He understands that some of the supernatural elements in his works are far-fetched. Simply the fact that he acknowledges this makes him the better man, and, though I’m clearly no stranger to criticizing him, adds to my respect for him which I’ve already developed from On Writing. Again, he isn’t devoid of investing, and even scary stories. I love The Shining, Carrie, and 'Salem’s Lot. Any fan of sci-fi or fantasy won't deny his contribution of The Dark Tower series. Other smaller works like Needful Things, Pet Semetary, and his short stories get countless recommendations from fellow readers. I won’t go so far as to say that his reputation is conceived out of nothing, or lack or talent, or that it is subject to a history of good reviews from journals which have critiqued him since his debut as a writer; he will always have his moments of notability. But as a millennial born long after his heyday, I can’t deny the fact that I will always have a generational divide with readers who grew up with what are considered his best and most terrifying works. On top of this, his writing flaws can’t go unnoticed. Unfortunately, it seems that for King, though an icon in his own right, a great deal of his work will fall victim to the passage of time. For someone born too late to enjoy him for who his is (or was), let's just say we have a complicated relationship.

-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; June 2017

Book Review: The Scholar, The Sphinx, And The Shades of Nyx

Not that I’m writing a serial here, but, the last couple of book reviews I have posted discussed what can make and break sci-fi and fantasy novels. I’ve pointed out similarities among books of the genre, how they can get too complex, sometimes require experience from a reader, or completely rip at the seams of what they try to create. The reason people enjoy fantasy novels is because they are written in universes which readers can immerse themselves in and escape reality; to create that which cannot be created, or see that which cannot be seen. Rarely, and I mean rarely, does a fantasy novel simply say "Shut up. It’s friggin’ fantasy. We can do whatever we want and have all the fun we want." The Scholar, The Sphinx, And The Shades of Nyx by A. R. Cook understands this statement perfectly. 

Scholar and Sphinx (as I will refer to it throughout the review), is one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had with a fantasy novel, period. It’s a story which throws reality out the door and fully embraces the fact that fiction can do whatever it wants.  Though it introduces some of the most bizarre concepts and imagery, it is grounded and can be grasped by a reader of any experience. Despite its zaniness, it isn’t a tripped-out story which only few will enjoy. It’s like it takes place in the mind of a child; it’s bizarre, yet it is passable because we understand how bizarre a child’s mind is. 

Scholar and Sphinx follows a teenage boy named David Sandoval who desires to work as an architect in France. On a journey to an internship, he encounters a traveling band of gypsies who, through a misunderstanding, take him captive. It is here when David discovers that the gypsies have something to hide; their leader is a sphinx from a mystical world known as the Curtain. David accompanies the gypsies into the Curtain where he discovers that the Sphinx (whom he names Acacia) has a secret weakness to her which could risk the balance of the Curtain, her family of gypsies, and everyone she loves. With his newfound, yet skeptic care for Acacia, David vows to find a means of curing her, on what will be the trippiest road trip of his life. 

The fact of the matter is that Scholar and Sphinx isn’t a "love letter" to fantasy. It doesn’t borrow elements from the likes of Tolkien, Lewis, and Jordan, or every other fantasy writer who came before, though it is no stranger to dragons and the like. Rather, it tells its own story by embracing the fact that fantasy can do whatever it pleases, and doesn’t back down. The Curtain is a truly undefined realm which can aid or curse its inhabitants at any given moment. Humans can be like animals and vice-versa.  There is no definition to the way things are because there doesn’t have to be. Yet, despite this boundless, imaginative world, the lore is grounded and down-to-earth. Anyone can understand it without having to memorize a laundry-list of terminology which can’t be pronounced. It’s a simple story which invites readers to embrace the absurd and escape reality. 

What makes this such a powerful book is its main duo. I know it’s cliche to say that characters are "well written" or whatever you may call them. But Scholar and Sphinx understands relationships so well that it can be extremely emotional without having to orchestrate dark, emotional scenes which stick out like a sore thumb. The genius is in the dynamic of its two main characters. David and Acacia are unique because one has a handicap, and the other is so affected by his new reality.  The emotion between them doesn’t need to be romance-driven because there is no real romance between them. It’s the right balance between two characters who are so awkward together that they can’t get along as a team, and two characters with a cliched, gushing romance between them. This struck many emotional swells throughout my reading, as I empathized with what such bizarre characters were going through. There’s a particularly emotional moment in the first act when David is coming to grips with what he has to overcome for his loved ones. Though the book never reached a similar emotional high, this scene stuck with me the most.

Ultimately, where Scholar and Sphinx succeeds is in it’s accessibility. Truly anyone can read this fantasy book and enjoy it. Even children. This would be a great book to introduce youngsters to fantasy outside the world of mass-marketing. Another reason which hi-lights this is the fact that Scholar and Sphinx is clean, which is very unconventional for the genre. Though it goes to dark places, it doesn’t have to be crass or "dirty" to be funny, dramatic, or emotional. I love stories like these which aren’t afraid to refrain from sex, swearing, or unnecessary violence to have an edge or be entertaining. It relies on its story, characters, and world, and that’s all it needs. 

It was difficult to come off my read of Scholar and Sphinx and then delve into a more complex sci-fi novel. It proves that fantasy can be simplified and accessible to those less familiar with the genre. It would be stellar if works in different fiction genres could take this route and embrace itself in an easy to read story which introduces novices, yet be thoroughly enjoyed by veterans. It’s a rare book which I can say I have no gripes with. Give it a read, and appreciate the accomplishment that is this book. 

You can purchase The Scholar, The Sphinx, And The Shades Of Nyx from Amazon here.

-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; June 2017

Book Review: The Galactic Satori Chronicles, Book 1- Earth

It’s always a joy when a novel labels itself as one thing, yet manages to deliver something a little more than that. The first installment in The Galactic Satori Chronicles, Earth, manages to do just that. It’s a "space opera" which is a little more down-to-home in its story and characters. This should be expected, given that the title is 'Earth’, yet it simultaneously introduces an inventive, expansive universe for a space opera. Unfortunately, we don’t get to encounter much of that universe, which makes me question how this book can be a space opera. 

Earth follows the story of eight individuals on Earth who are predestined by an advanced alien race called the Aliri to save Earth from impending doom by a malevolent alien race called the Kron. It sounds confusing, but it’s easy to grasp. The Aliri enhance the humans with superhuman abilities in order for them to outrun and outwit the Kron. The story follows the group as they discover their newfound abilities, learn to use them, and learn to work as a team, all while discovering their destiny of saving the planet. It’s a gripping, awesome concept which had me hooked from the get-go. The execution of the concept was less than stellar. 

Firstly, allow me to elaborate on the positives of this book, because there are many. In terms of sci-fi, it explores a lot of interesting ideas about alien races and how they would seek to destroy or aid us. It explores the concept of aliens controlling us from lightyears away all while tackling our mental flaws. It also lends itself to the idea that aliens will destroy us from within, by hiding among us and influencing our leaders’ decision making. It also introduces the idea that aliens aiding us might have to harm us to ensure our survival. On top of this, everything about the alien species’ cultures is damn interesting.  Whenever the perspective shifts to them is when the book is at its best, and I was all ears. Unfortunately, we don’t stay with the aliens very long. 

The book spends the majority of its pages following the savior group, and these sections are mostly busywork. Don’t get me wrong, there are still positives to be drawn. First off, the entire first act is well handled. We get to know the characters as they interact with the mystery of the aliens, meet each other, and ultimately encounter the aliens. The entire second half of the first act is the main octet learning how to pilot a spaceship, and, though it drags some, it’s cool when executed. The characters work off of each other and their interactions feel genuine given their situation. Secondly, I care for each and every one of the characters. They are written as genuine people, and I sympathize with their backstories and circumstances. The biggest problem is that the story drives too much on these characters’ personality traits, and not enough on telling the story.

The book constantly reminds us who is who by giving each character an obnoxious quirk which the dialogue and/or narrative constantly rails on. One of the characters is lusty, and the reader is constantly reminded that he is lusty as he goes after every girl he lays eyes on. This character happens to be the main character, and his lust isn’t resolved by the end. Had there been some kind of resolution to this trait, it would have made his lustiness worthwhile; but there isn’t, so it’s just filler. The fact of the matter is that the reader doesn’t have to constantly be reminded that a character is smart, or a dweeb, or lusty, or heartbroken. It spends so much time leeching off these character traits that the story has very little momentum. Because of this, when the characters return to Earth and leave the spaceship, the second act goes downhill because it is almost completely character driven with little to no sci-fi elements present. The book explores destiny and self-discovery, which isn’t a bad thing, but when obnoxiously written personality types are all there is to be explored, it makes for a dull story.

This leads to what is without a doubt the biggest problem with this novel: It’s too damn long. Had Earth not spent so much time on the characters’ personalities, it could have easily been at least 100 pages shorter. This book is also victim of going into too much detail during action scenes. I don’t need to know everything a character is doing with a weapon as they are trying to use it. Just tell me what’s going on in the action scene. The book is inconsistent in this respect because I recall dozens of events which were described summarily because the writers knew it would go into too much detail. Why can’t that be exercised throughout the whole book? The length really becomes a sore when the resolution finally arrives, which is unfulfilling and leaves much to be desired. It also blatantly informs the reader that there will be a sequel, giving zero clues at to what it will be about, as well as undermining the fact that it failed to answer many questions posed throughout the story.  Also, for a book called Galactic Satori Chronicles, it fails to even address what the Galactic Satori is, or are. 

Where Earth ultimately falls flat on its face is its failure to pursue what would have been a great concept which was delivered upon a silver platter. Every time the aliens are at the forefront in the story, it is investing as hell. The problem is that we rarely, and I mean rarely, encounter these aliens. Instead we have to spend time with enjoyable, yet poorly handled characters as they slug through a poorly handled story. Had the aliens been more liberally used in the plot, I have no doubt this would have been a much better novel.

Earth, as an introduction to a series of books, failed to deliver and hook me as a reader. What concerns me is that Earth has a sequel, which I own and intend to read. My sliver of hope is that the title and cover indicate that the characters will be traveling to (and hopefully interacting with) the aliens and their planet. Also, this is Nick Braker and Paul Hicks’ first novel, and writers always gain experience from their first work to their second, so I am open no doubt.  Here’s to hoping the sequel will be a more worthwhile story. 

-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; May 2017

Book Review: Fire With Fire

(Minor Spoilers Ahead)

Sci-Fi and Fantasy are two genres of literature which are, in many respects, one and the same. At least, they are capable of playing off each other. A sci-fi novel can be a massive space opera, but also use magic, an element of fantasy. Likewise, a fantasy novel could have dwarves and trolls battle each-other in submarines, an element of sci-fi. The two can also cross-genre with horror, noire, mystery; the possibilities are endless. Whereas horror or mystery describe the context of a plot device, sci-fi and fantasy describe a setting. 

With that, it’s no wonder that since I started attending sci-fi/fantasy literary conventions for writing advice, I’ve come across a healthy share of sci-fi and fantasy novels. As a novice to the genre, the more I read, the more similarities I notice. Don’t get me wrong, it should be expected that stories of these genres share certain elements like use of magic, or faster-than-light travel. But at the point these elements are so similarly used as plot devices from novel-to-novel is when both genres tend to get stale for me. This is why it is innovative for sci-fi and fantasy to cross-genre with horror, romance, or noire in order to spice up a good story. I’m always looking for how a sci-fi or fantasy novel can change the game in terms of telling a story, while appropriately retaining elements which distinguish the genre. If what I’m reading is a run-of-the-mill dungeon crawl or pew-pew space opera, I’m tempted to shelve the book. 

Fire With Fire by Charles E. Gannon is exactly the kind of story I am referring to; a sci-fi novel which tells a unique and engaging story, while pushing the boundaries of originality within the genre. Despite being among the longest novels I’ve ever read, its angle on already over-used sci-fi tropes brings a fresh and new experience to well-worn readers.

The story follows an investigative reporter who reanimates from 14 years of cryo-sleep. He is immediately recruited to train as a soldier to investigate shady business on a human-inhabited planet. What he discovers is that intelligent alien life exists on this planet in the form of small, animal-like creatures which inhibit human-like conscience. The reporter then relays his findings to a coalition of Earth’s governments, only to then be made a wanted fugitive for everything he knows. When he is recaptured by the government, he is asked to do the unthinkable: act as Earth’s ambassador in communicating with alien species. 

What makes Fire With Fire work is that it takes the typical trope of humans discovering life beyond Earth, approaches it from a diplomatic angle, and makes it interesting as hell. Though it is by all means a space opera, readers shouldn’t expect many pew-pew action scenes and massive space battles. It is a story which examines how humanity and other alien species would act to cooperate and ensure the survival and wellbeing of every race, despite their drastic differences. It’s a high-stakes Cold War in space which, surprisingly, puts readers on edge. 

Fire With Fire is not for the faint of heart, however. This novel requires some decent reading experience. Novice readers should be cautious, and certainly read some sci-fi novels before tackling it. The reason being is that it goes into excessive detail with technology, space diplomacy, alien mentality, sovereignty of Earth and space governments; the list goes on. What’s so peculiar about this novel is that it handles space politics so well. Most sci-fi stories which attempt to tackle politics are typically boring or poorly handled. Despite all of its detail, Fire With Fire’s space politics manage to feel fresh and suspenseful, without overhauling commentary of Earth’s historical and modern-day equivalents. The reason it works so well is that the team of human diplomats is chock-full of interesting and lovable characters who have charm. There’s even some playful banter among the team, given their dire circumstances, yet it knows to be serious when it is appropriate. It’s a massive slap in the face to the Star Wars prequels, a trilogy which was crippled by boring space diplomacy and even more stale space diplomats. Here, despite being exceedingly more detailed than that of the Star Wars prequels, Gannon manages to make intergalactic politics work. 

Despite containing a slew of space opera tropes, Fire With Fire manages to bring forth a plethora of originality in its more material elements. Certain aspects of technology, though a little wordy at times, feel fresh and new having been present in the genre for so long. The alien species, much like Arrival, aren’t little green men or humanoid; they have very original designs and even more original psyches. Gannon took time to consider how a truly alien species would interpret information, and react in certain situations. It gives the aliens a sense of predictability, but also leaves the reader guessing the more reclusive species next moves. 

Despite my praise, I do find FWF to have a few flaws. Firstly, sometimes the novel can be too detailed. There are certain scenes in which I was asking myself "Do I really need this process explained to me?". This is especially evident when characters are in an action scene which is meant to be quick and suspenseful, and Gannon takes time to give an overly detailed explanation of the technology the characters are using. It’s not needed, and kills the momentum of the scene. Also, the third act, though without a doubt the best, needs to be shorter. It could cut fifty pages if it had simply moved the story along a little faster and not been so repetitive and dragged out.

Though it contains a handful of bugs, I was ecstatic of my experience with Fire With Fire. I got to listen to Charles Gannon speak at JordanCon 9 in April of this year, and it was quiet the interesting session. I was skeptical at the length of his books, but I more than breezed through FWF because it is written so well. It makes my panel experience with Gannon all the more cherished. I definitely recommend this novel for experienced sci-fi readers, and I encourage you to explore Gannon’s intricate world. I am more than looking forward to its sequels.

You can purchase Fire With Fire from Amazon here.

-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; May 2017

Book Review: Between Black and White

Upon reading Robert Bailey’s first novel, The Professor, I felt it was quite the thrilling tale, and it is a novel I highly recommend. I took some time before picking up the sequel, Between Black and White. Little did I know that I would finish it in four days, something I’ve never accomplished with a book of its size. 

Between Black and White picks up immediately following the events of The Professor, from the perspective of a side character from the first book. Bocephus Haynes is convicted of a murder he is convinced he didn’t commit, despite all evidence mounting against him as the culprit. With nowhere to turn, he summons The Professor to try his case.  The Professor isn’t convinced he can try a murder case, a field he’s completely inexperienced in, but he bites the bullet and takes it on. With the help of his new legal partner, Rick Drake, The Professor begins to uncover clues about the case which could provide an alternative to the evidence and the culprit.  However, much like the last novel, there are demons on the other side who don’t want The Professor to succeed, and are willing to take violent measures to do so.  It’s a race against the clock for The Professor and his team to keep their friends close and their enemies closer, as the life of their client is at stake.

The Professor was able to take a simple civil case and turn it into an adrenaline trip.  Right from the beginning, the novel pulled the reader into what would otherwise be a boring case. The story was backed by genuine characters and a real understanding of the law on Bailey’s part. The antagonists were absolutely ruthless, and the power of heroic characters was what ultimately allowed the good guys to succeed.  Between Black and White shaves away any flaws from The Professor, and amplifies the good stuff. Between is absolutely non-stop in its plot, character development, action, and suspense. It expands the premise from the first novel and introduces new characters, while capitalizing on what made the first novel great. 

What specifically makes Between better than The Professor is that it knows how to handle its story and characters with elements of law.  The Professor spent a lot of time investigating the case and on the trial itself.  In Black and White, the investigation takes up less time and is usually blended with some action to keep the pace going.  The trial, while even more high-stakes than its predecessor, doesn’t take up much time either.  The characters from the first novel are also greatly expanded upon. In addition, Black and White also has more villains, many of whom don’t reveal themselves until late. The Professor’s villain was that of a puppet master, whereas Black and White has more of a group of villains conspiring against the heroes, an element which is advantageous for this type of story… 

One thing I mentioned in my Professor review was that the novel made great use of dramatic irony to keep the reader interested. This element is still used here, but to a greater effect.  In The Professor, the reader knew what the villain’s plan was as the story delivered the clueless reaction from the heroes. Black and White is more sparing with its information. It teases, but it still leaves the reader asking questions and adds to the element of surprise. 

I can do nothing more than recommend that you read Between Black and White, but read The Professor first.  It is an absolute roller-coaster ride from start to finish and doesn’t let up. The characters are lovable, the law elements are once again handled very well, and it contains one of the most shocking character revelations I’ve ever read.  Do yourself a favor, support an author, and read this book.  You won’t regret it. 

You can purchase Between Black and White here.

-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; March 2016

Book Review: The Hum And The Shiver

I rarely come across a fantasy or sci-fi novel in which a majority of the plot lulls, or is at least lacking excitement. Novels of this genre, though each unique in their own special way, almost always begin with a hook to draw the reader into the story; usually an action scene, or something wildly dramatic. A writer friend of mine says that if the reader isn’t invested by page 10, the author is doing it wrong. It is also rare for me to come across a "bad book".  It is a fact that there are very few "bad" books due to the amount of heart, soul, and effort required of completing a novel-length story. But the times when I have read something less than stellar, it was typically because the story wasn’t engaging, or spent so much time in a lulled state that I felt no reason to continue reading.  Books like these I keep hidden in a drawer until I decide to read them, or I eventually donate them.  

The Hum And The Shiver by Alex Bledsoe may be the only book I have read which, in my opinion, is by all outward appearances a slow novel, but engaged me in its story the entire way through.  There is no "hook" within the first ten pages.  There is little to no "action" until the final third of the novel, which by most standards isn’t the least bit "exciting".  The story is simply a large group of characters living their everyday lives in a setting.  What makes it so engaging is a damn good mystery, which makes for one of the most creatively written novels I’ve ever read. 

The story is set in a small, east Tennessee town which clearly has a past and an extensive lore to it.  The reader catches glimpses of this lore through the eyes of two outsiders, a preacher trying to start a parish in the town, and a reporter. The reader is as clueless to this mystery as these outsiders, however neither of them are the main character.  The main character and her close-knit friends and family are the ones who have been shaped by the town’s past and lore, as has every other character who lives there. Because of this, the characters never discuss the lore of their people. They live in a secluded town, and they never reveal their secrets to the occasional outsider.  Because every character in the story, aside from the two outsiders, has been raised in the lore, no one discusses it. There is simply no need for them to.  It’s a clever way to write a mystery.  What makes enduring the entire book worthwhile, is just how interesting the culture of the town is.

Bledsoe creates a lore in this book which is so unique and creative, and unlike anything I’ve ever read before.  It is so well thought out that the reader keeps asking questions with every turn of the page. Why do they do this? Why can’t they do that? What does that word mean? The residents of the town are passionate about their traditions as they force them on the main character, and through her pain, the reader can only wonder why they are so explicit. But again, they never take the time to explain the lore because everyone is already engulfed in it. All is eventually revealed, but it takes a journey of establishing real characters with real emotion to get there. 

And that is what makes Hum and Shiver feel so genuine amongst its over-the-top lore.  The characters are vast, unique, and genuine. They speak to each other about their culture in everyday conversations. Their actions and dialogue are further humanized by the fact that their culture is flawed. Characters, like in politics, disagree as to how things should be done, which creates steaming conflict. But, once again, the reader never knows the why behind people’s anger because they need not discuss the details.

The Hum And The Shiver is one of the most captivating novels I have read, and it didn’t have to shock me every few chapters to do it.  It is a mystery which keeps the reader asking "Why?", and keeps pages turning from start to finish. Its clever use of plot elements keeps the story at so steady a pace, yet it surprisingly works and ultimately pays off. On top of that, mystery behind the lore alone makes this story worth the read. For that, I can do nothing more than recommend it. 

You can purchase The Hum And The Shiver here.

-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; February 2016

Review: The Iron Giant

This review is brought to you by request of a reader. Yes, you can make requests for reviews you want to see on this blog, at my discretion. Simply send me an email in the contact page.

The Iron Giant is movie I knew very little about until it was brought to my attention recently.  I knew I had heard of the movie before, but even those memories are extremely vague.  It may have been featured in a preview for a VHS or DVD I watched in the early 2000’s.  When it is discussed nowadays, it is usually attributed to being an animation masterpiece which has a massive cult following.  So, being the animation lover that I am, why am I not as familiar with this film?  Well, for one thing, this movie was released by Warner Bros., a studio whose animated films toward the end of the 20th century were known for being mediocre or just plain bad. It also released in the late 90’s, a time when Disney essentially monopolized the animation industry. This movie was likely swept under the rug by most viewers, as it didn’t receive any box office success. 

It is easy to say I went into this movie with a completely open mind, with one exception: Brad Bird’s name on the poster.  Anyone who knows Brad Bird knows he is an animation miracle worker.  With that, I was really excited. 

Warner Bros.

Warner Bros.

What surprised me the most about The Iron Giant was how laughably simple the story is.  A mysterious object from outer-space lands on earth, which turns out to be a massive "Iron Giant".  It crash-lands off the coast of rural Maine, where it is discovered by a boy named Hogar.  Hogar immediately befriends the Giant, but quickly learns he’ll need to hide it from the rest of his town, and a government agent who wants to see it destroyed.  The rest of the film is just that:  Hogar tries to corral the Giant into a hiding place while trying to outrun the government, and eventually the military, so they don’t blow it high and dry.

This story has been done a thousand times before. It is essentially E.T. meets any 1950’s alien invasion/giant monster movie.  But, what makes it work is just how much effort is put into it.  Everything from the writing, the characters, the animation; it all pieces together to make a well crafted film that is a love-letter to classic movie tropes while managing to become a classic in and of itself. 

Warner Bros.

Warner Bros.

The biggest reason this story is so well handled is the emotion it manages to express with such simple characters and writing. The characters in this movie are so lovable and enjoyable to watch.  Hogar is a typical kid who gets really moody but has a good heart. There is a beatnik he hangs out with who is really fun. His mom is really fun. There is the government agent who acts like he knows what he’s doing, but really he just wants approval from his boss and is willing to be a total asshole in order to get it.  It is the breed of a perfect villain you just love to hate.  But where the film really shines is the Giant itself.  The Giant has such a range of emotion for a big hunk of metal.  The way he moves, uses facial expressions, and subtly shares his feelings can be really heartwarming or heartbreaking.  Centered around the Giant and Hogar is a real emotional struggle which deals with some heavy issues, especially for an animated movie.  Hogar has conversations with the Giant about topics like death, the afterlife, and the idea of a soul, if people have them. 

What makes this movie most unique is hands-down the animation. It has a distinct design where I could look at any screenshot and say, "That’s The Iron Giant."  All the colors are subdued, it uses very smooth lines, and has an overall dark art style for a whimsically spirited animated movie.  The way the characters move feels so natural and human.  What they absolutely nail is the lighting effects; this has some of the best lighting effects in an animated film I’ve ever seen. You see, The Iron Giant was made in a time when traditional animation was dying out, but was also making a ton of innovations.  Some could argue, however, that this animation style is a bit dated.  It combines a lot of CG with 2D animation. This was early CG, so the final product doesn’t always flow together.  But, the clash is really what gives the film such a unique look.  It isn’t necessarily trying to be a spectacle, rather innovate and tell a great story; all the more reason why this movie has gained such a cult following.  

Warner Bros.

Warner Bros.

The film as a whole also takes full advantage of its setting.  This movie is a love-letter to 1950’s nostalgia, both in film, popular culture and small-town vibes. There’s an ambient feeling of the atomic age, the characters have a total hatred for the Russians, and the entire conspiracy of the Giant lends itself to the question of whether we are alone in the universe, a hot topic during the era. 

Despite very cartoony animation, I was surprised at how the film has a very adult spirit.  The voice actors in this film do an outstanding job, like they are really acting in the roles of these characters.  It feels like genuine acting, like the cartoon characters have a life to themselves and aren’t just moving drawings.  The dialogue is also very adult for an animated film, but can be extremely funny at times.  Some of the dialogue I imagine would completely go over a little kid’s head, but it also goes to show why this movie has stuck with people for so long.  I could easily see teenagers and adults putting this on and having a good time with it. 

Warner Bros.

Warner Bros.

It’s safe to say I’ve gone long enough without seeing The Iron Giant, so I was glad I finally gave it a watch.  There are so many films like it which had a ton of effort put into them, but simply didn’t get enough attention. Thankfully the Internet and the availability of movies on digital are allowing films like these to be rediscovered and gain a cult following years later.  Overall, I feel the film is fantastic. It was refreshing to see a traditionally animated movie done in a different style by a different studio that really shines.  The characters are great, it takes full advantage of a simple story, and radiates an adult vibe while discussing important mature issues; I would even go as far to say it handles the adult tone better than most of Pixar’s films (I say most!).  Regardless, if you’re like me and haven’t seen this movie, definitely give it a watch.  It’s time well spent on an overlooked piece of animation goodness. 

-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; January 2017