Fiction

Book Review: Year of Wonders

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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 Keeper of Lost Things

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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

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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

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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

Book Review: The Haters

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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

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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: 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: 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: Thieftaker

D.B. Jackson presents a compelling tale with his novel Theiftaker, a pre-American Revolution historic fiction…with magic.  On paper, nothing could sound better.

In Jackson’s novel, Ethan Kaille is a down-on-his-luck thieftaker in colonial Boston. A theiftaker is someone who retrieves stolen property for money.  Ethan’s dirty secret is that he is also a conjurer, and can use organic material around him to cast spells.  The novel opens with Ethan tracking down a target he’s been hired to pursue, in which we see Ethan’s extent of mental, physical, and magical ability.  This opening chapter does well to establish the character and his broad range of skill.  We also see right from the start that the magic in Jackson’s world isn’t the clean-cut magic we’re used to seeing in the likes of say, Harry Potter.  Jackson’s magic is crude, and doesn’t always work for novice conjurers.  It requires energy and effort which gives the conjuring characters a taxing factor in their ability, and are by no means invincible.  In addition, we learn that Ethan has to cut himself whenever he conjures because blood produces the most effective spells, so use of magic always comes at a sacrifice.  This raises the stakes for the character to the extent of forcing Ethan to choose between self sacrifice or what is an otherwise more comfortable journey.  The big question is always which will grant him his life.

Once the story gets moving, we learn of Ethan’s hardships as a theiftaker, and that he’s new to the business.  He faces the challenge of dealing with a substantial rival theiftaker, Sephira Pryce, who essentially has mooks all over Boston hunting Ethan down to keep him from stealing her work.  This takes a dark turn for Ethan when he is hired to retrieve a stolen article from the daughter of a wealthy merchant, who is willing to pay him substantially for his efforts.  Ethan has never taken up the task of solving a murder mystery, but is willing to try.   Not only does he discover how threatened he is by conspirators of the murder, but Sephira Pryce is out for blood since he has accepted a high-paying contract which would otherwise belong to her.  Throughout the story, whenever Ethan is close to finding another clue, Sephira and her mooks get in the way and he has to start from square one again.  And whenever Ethan encounters Sephira, it’s no quick beat 'em up.  Ethan is almost always outnumbered 10 to 1, and he must refrain from using magic or will otherwise be accused as a witch.  When Sephira’s men beat him, he suffers the consequences.  This isn’t like the movies where our hero can take a beating and get back up again unscathed.  When Ethan is beaten, he is practically immobilized.  His bones break, he gets bloodied up, and has trouble breathing.  His injuries get in the way later in the novel when he’s at his most desperate.  While Spephira and her men are a substantial threat in the story, it’s rarely explained how she has so much power.  We understand that she essentially owns the streets of Boston, but we never know why.  Additionally, while it’s mentioned multiple times that she’s a thieftaker, we never see her do any theiftaking, which I feel would’ve made her character a little more fledged out.  I may be getting ahead of myself as there are more Thieftaker novels after this, but it would’ve been nice to see her style of thieftaking in this book.  Even then, this is only a minor nitpick compared to the rest of the novel.

Ethan also goes to bat with another conjurer throughout the story who quickly proves to be far more skilled than himself.   The conjurer is never physically visible, which makes thwarting him all the more difficult.  In these instances, Ethan has to get creative with his conjurings, and readers witness the full extent of magic within Jackson’s world.  The conjurer never allows Ethan to walk away on two feet.  The spells this mysterious figure uses on him are violent, and Jackson’s descriptions make the reader feel the pain Ethan is going through.  These are some of the best and scariest portions of the novel, which strangely enough make the reader feel like their in Ethan’s shoes.  

Jackson’s Boston is one of the most believable reading environments I’ve ever been placed in.  Having taking place nearly 250 years ago, it feels like I’m actually there and can talk to the city’s inhabitants.  I can feel the grime and dirt, and can smell the smells.  Jackson’s similes and metaphors are also kept within the time period.  There are no modern-day comparisons or comparisons that could work for any point in history.  For example, there’s a part where Jackson describes a character’s dialogue as "a statement that would’ve made King George wince".  Something like that ins’t necessary per-say, but it keeps the story within it’s setting, and is a nice little touch.  The believability of this world is once again thanks to the way Jackson describes it. We see authors do this all the time, but Theiftaker feels like a place I can actually go to and interact with.  Jackson takes us to every nook and cranny of Boston through Ethan’s adventures, meeting colorful characters and exploring new locations, which only adds to the believability of the world.  

Thieftaker lends readers to a vast number of characters, which most fantasy novels would have issues handling for casual readers.  However most every character in Thieftaker feels genuine because they add weight to the story.  No character is shoe-horned in simply for the sake of adding something that wasn’t there before, or as a cop-out to advance the plot.  It’s because they hold so much weight that we feel that they’re actually there.

For a novel that takes place in Revolutionary America, there aren’t that many references to typical American Revolution tropes, and for me, that’s a good thing.  Most settings in this era would have Ethan amidst the Boston Tea Party, or fighting redcoats as a vigilante.  Ethan is most nearly the exact opposite.  He simply doesn’t give a damn about taxation without representation, and is just trying to do his job.  He will take sides with the patriots or loyalists if it means not having to discuss politics so he can get on with business.  This is a fresh look at a character in this era, as most Revolutionary characters always side with the patriots, and it’s interesting to see someone who’s neutral for once.  There are also few major historical figures of the time.  There are no George Washingtons or Thomas Jeffersons here.  Rather, most figures of this status are given as little as a mention, such as Paul Revere or John Hancock.  The most significant figure who appears is Samuel Adams, and even then he isn’t front and center throughout the novel, and is instead used as a means to relay information to Ethan in the latter half of the story.  This is how it should be.  Theiftaker is willing to stick to it’s own story by using its setting as a backdrop, and not rely on historical figures for history class nostalgia.  While I’m sure that Ethan will encounter more historical figures in future novels, as there are more in this series, for a first installment this was a very smart choice.  It shows readers that the story knows what it is doing independently, and doesn’t have to rely on nostalgia for the sake of getting history buffs’ attention.  

Thieftaker is an engaging novel which engulfs readers in a believable world, and manages to stick to it’s plot throughout.  There’s no fluff in the story, and every character adds weight, which is a rare thing for novels with such a vast number of characters to achieve.  Though a lack historical characters, any red-blooded American fantasy lover should get a kick out of this novel, as well as casual readers who aren’t into fantasy.  Definitely a tale for the ages.  

-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; June 2016

Purchase Theiftaker from Amazon.

Book Review: The Martian Chronicles

This week, I read Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. I’m a massive Bradbury fan as it is;  Fahrenheit 541 and Something Wicked This Way Comes are among my favorite books.  His social commentary in 541 has become a staple in American school systems, but his visions of the dystopian future of humanity are not what makes him a great author.  Simply the style of his writing is enough to pick up a book and read it.  The words put a smile on my face as to how quirky they are written, yet are somehow cohesive.  He can convey massive stories with very few words which is why his name has become what it is today.  The Martian Chronicles is no exception of a massive story that takes less than a week to read.  

The Martian Chronicles is the story of Earth and Mars; two very different planets that turn out to be very much alike.  The novel is nothing but segmented short stories, all of which contain different characters which have nothing to do with other characters in other short stories.  This is because Bradbury is not trying to tell the story of individuals, but the story of two planets.  

The book was written in the height of Cold War hysteria, and the fears of a massive nuclear war that would de-civilize Earth.  Humans who wish to avoid such a war move to Mars in giant rockets.  Bradbury establishes Mars as a planet civilized with its own beings and civilizations, which are abandoned, killed off, and destroyed over time, as more and more humans colonize the planet.  We see the effects on the people of Earth as Mars becomes a more desirable place to live.  Consequently, the more people colonizing the planet, the more the government soon attempts to take over.  As tensions escalate on Earth, the "Martians" must decide weather they are to stand their ground, or give in to their humanity.  All of these events are depicted in short stories that are entertaining, funny, action packed, and suspenseful.  There is never a dull moment, and the seemingly limitless boundaries of the planet are open to endless interpretation by the imagination.  

Bradbury tells us the large-scale story of Earth and Mars through the eyes of little humans who are concerned only with their own affairs.  His characters may not know it, but they are contributing to a grander cause within the novel.  It’s clever storytelling like this that continues to make Bradbury’s work worthwhile, and another must-read for generations to come.

-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; April 2016