Goodbye 2013, Hello 2014

I’m looking forward to the new year. This is mainly because, as a writer, 2013 was for the most part a bust. Without exception, I kicked every writing goal I set for myself to the curb this past year. So in this light, 2014 is guaranteed to be a success. Right?

I know it’s dangerous, but I’m going to set some of my goals down here for all to see. Accountability and all that. So without further procrastination ado, here they are.
Continue reading

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Book Review: Stories from the Underworld, by Johanna K. Pitcairn

I am weird. I enjoy what I do. There’s nothing better than this. Such a beautiful gift. I live far away from people. Kidding. New York City is an exquisite playground, but you knew this already. It’s really easy to deceive people into believing I’m such a nice and helpful neighbor. I like to have my little secrets. They’re mine… forever. I don’t even need a photo album. I can remember each of them so vividly. Ah… Let me contemplate this for a second… Yes. That’s right. Perfect.

from “Open Letter to a Kindred Spirit,” by Johanna K. Pitcairn

Stories from the Underworld, by Johanna K. PitcairnStories from the Underworld is a collection of tales that share a sameness of setting and mood which I found immediately engaging. There’s a perception of New York City’s atmosphere that permeates every story, and even those that don’t explicitly take place there are influenced by it in some way or another. There’s a dark and gritty feel to every sentence, as if each word was pulled from a dark and damp alleyway in the dead of night. The stories will shock you, and maybe even surprise you with a twist or two.

The Good

The tales within Stories from the Underworld run the gamut in genre from horror to suspense to near-future dystopia. Despite this, there seems to be a continuity linking all of them together—the characterization of the setting. It is consistent and realistic, and becomes the cord linking the collection together, even though one story may take place in a disabled subway car while another plays out in a wooded battlefield in the near future. The characters all seem to either be trapped in the city or in the process of escaping, physically or psychologically.

Some of the stories are graphic, others are subtle. One or two of the stories seem to end abruptly—but at just the right time. Most are first-person accounts from a female point of view, but not all. If there’s a common thread linking all of the tales together aside from the setting, it’s darkness and a sense of foreboding. These are not happy stories at all.

The Bad

There’s not much to say here. The stories are well written and engaging, and there was nothing to distract from that. With such a wide variety of tales it’s possible that not every one will appeal to each reader, but that’s a matter of taste rather than quality.

The Ugly

The copy of this book I read was an independently-produced Kindle version. As such there were little or no distractions from the reading experience stemming from formatting or presentation. In fact, I have read some professionally-produced e-books from established publishers that have had more issues than this one.

Conclusion

I’ve never been to New York City, but we’ve all read books and seen movies or television shows set there. I even know a few people who’ve lived there. Just like every large American city, be it New York or Chicago, Los Angeles or San Francisco, Boston or Dallas, Atlanta or Detroit or Miami, perceptions can vary wildly, and I can say that I myself have been presented with a confounding number of different versions of New York. In Stories from the Underworld, Johanna Pitcairn presents a view of her city that is dark and mysterious, and not a little perilous for those who lack the necessary survival instincts. Additionally, she is able to convey a sense that, once entered, the darkness of the city can never truly be escaped, regardless of how far one may roam.

If you enjoy your tales dark and chilling, this book is an excellent choice. I give it four stars.

4 Stars

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Book Review: A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens

Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Scrooge knew he was dead? Of course he did. How could it be otherwise? Scrooge and he were partners for I don’t know how many years. Scrooge was his sole executor, his sole administrator, his sole assign, his sole residuary legatee, his sole friend, and sole mourner. And even Scrooge was not so dreadfully cut up by the sad event, but that he was an excellent man of business on the very day of the funeral, and solemnised it with an undoubted bargain.

The mention of Marley’s funeral brings me back to the point I started from. There is no doubt that Marley was dead.

from A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens

I wasn’t going to do it: I wasn’t going to post yet another book review. That was until my daughter brought home a copy of A Christmas Carol and Other Stories from her school library. She knew I had enjoyed the one Dickens novel I had previously read, Great Expectations, and thought I would enjoy this one, too. And it didn’t take me long to decide that the review of a good Christmas ghost story would be appropriate for this website at this time. So, this is my Christmas gift to you.

There probably aren’t many who aren’t familiar with the tale of Ebenezer Scrooge and his encounters with ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, but just in case, here’s a summary.

Scrooge is a cold man, hardened by years spent in the accumulation of wealth. One Christmas Eve, feeling particularly cantankerous on the cusp of his least-favorite holiday, he is visited by the ghost of his old partner Jacob Marley. He has come to warn old Ebenezer of his impending fate: to spend eternity bound by the figurative chains he has fashioned for himself during his life. He then tells Scrooge to expect three spectral visitors, who each in turn take the old miser on a tour of Christmases that were, are, and might yet be.

The Good

A Christmas Carol and Other Stories, by Charles DickensI haven’t read a lot of Dickens; this is only the second of his works that I have taken the time to enjoy. I’ve heard a lot of people complain of his wordiness and dry prose, but I have no complaints. First, the quote above shows, he can ramble, but it’s usually in the interest of absurdity (again, see the quote). The opening lines immediately recalled a particular Monte Python skit for some reason, but that’s beside the point. Secondly, I don’t find his prose any more dry than his contemporaries; less so, in fact.

What I learned from this novella (it’s just over 100 pages), as well as Great Expectations, is that Dickens was a master of characterization; it’s no wonder many of his characters have become icons of personality. The names Oliver Twist, The Artful Dodger and Fagan, Ebenezer Scrooge, Jacob Marley and Tiny Tim, all conjure impressions of familiarity. As a writer, I find that the author has a lot to teach in this area.

For all of this, the themes of this story made the greatest impression. The theme of generosity vs. materialism is clear, showing the joy that comes from a generous heart, even in those who are impoverished, juxtaposed with the discontent and loneliness that comes from a miserly heart and a constant pursuit of wealth.

Underlying this, though, is the simple message that it’s always possible to change one’s heart.

The Bad

I love it when I can’t find a thing to write here.

The Ugly

Or here.

Conclusion

When I decided to read A Christmas Carol, my first thought was that it might not hold my attention having seen so many screen and stage adaptations. After reading the opening sequence quoted above, however, I knew I was in for an thoroughly entertaining experience.

I found that the greatest thing about reading this story, though, is becoming reacquainted with the timelessness of its themes. They are, in fact more timely than ever, considering today’s obsession with both materialism and the shunning of the word “Christmas” in the name of being politically correct. In the case of materialism, this tale unashamedly proclaims the cliched message, “it is better to give than to receive,” and does it in an unforgettable way. And in the case of political correctness, A Christmas Carol firmly reveals the truth: Christmas is about loving and giving, about peace and goodwill, and about sharing of hearts; and by these qualities it transcends culture and faith and race and nationality.

It’s on that note, and in that spirit, that I wish all of you a merry Christmas. Oh yes, I also give this story five stars. 5 Stars

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Status Update: The 2012 Eclectic Reader’s Challenge

Book reviews are about all I’ve posted in the last few months, and here my first non-review post in a very long time is about–book reviews. Even though it appears as if I have reviewed far too many novels lately, I can say that, as far as the 2012 Eclectic Reader’s Challenge is concerned, it hasn’t been enough.

If you don’t know–or don’t recall–what the Challenge is, it’s simply this: Read a book in each of twelve different genres, then publish a review. Simple, right? One book and review a month. Well, I fell a little short.

Here is a list of the represented genres, the books I had planned to read, the ones I actually read, the rating I gave, and whether a review has been published for the novel.

Genre Book Planned to Read Book Read Rating Status
Science Fiction Seven Point Eight: The First Chronicle, by Marie Harbon same 3 Stars
but see the review for explanation
Read and reviewed
Non-fiction Immediate Fiction, by Jerry Cleaver none n/a Not read
Horror Reunion, by Jeff Bennington same 3 Stars Read and reviewed
Classic Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley same  3 Stars Read and reviewed
Literary In Memory of Greed, by Al Boudreau Life of Pi, by Yann Martel 5 Stars Read and reviewed
Thriller/Suspense BoneMan’s Daughters, by Ted Dekker In Memory of Greed, by Al Boudreau n/a Read, not reviewed
Crime/Mystery Chasing Amanda, by Melissa Foster same 4 Stars Read and reviewed
Fantasy A Game of Thrones, by George R. R. Martin Bonded, by Mande Matthews 4 Stars Read and reviewed
Young Adult The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins same n/a Read, not reviewed
Romance Bonded, by Mande Matthews Why Men are from Earth and Women are not from Venus, by Mark Laverdiere n/a Begun but not finished, not reviewed
Historical Hadn’t decided n/a n/a Neither read nor reviewed
My favorite genre (horror) Blood Skies, by Steven Montano n/a n/a Neither read nor reviewed

So there you have it. I intend to post a review for The Hunger Games before the end of the year, so watch for it soon.

The following year I intend to write and publish one book review a month. I already have a short list of those that will appear here–some have already been read and are just waiting for me to write it up. With very few exceptions, the books I review will be within the horror/supernatural/paranormal/suspense genres. There are currently one fantasy and one science fiction novel on the list.

If you have any suggestions, or are an author with a book you’d like reviewed, let me know in the comments section and I’ll add them to my list.

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Book Review: Life of Pi, by Yann Martel

She came floating on an island of bananas in a halo of light, as lovely as the Virgin Mary. The rising sun was behind her. Her flaming hair looked stunning.

I cried, “Oh blessed Great Mother, Pondicherry fertility goddess, provider of milk and love, wondrous arms spread of comfort, terror of ticks, picker-up of crying ones, are you to witness this tragedy, too? It’s not right that gentleness meet horror. Better that you had died right away. How bitterly glad I am to see you. You bring joy and pain in equal measure. Joy because you are with me, but pain because it won’t be for long. What do you know about the sea? Nothing. What do I know about the sea? Nothing. Without a driver this bus is lost. Our lives are over. Come aboard if your destination is oblivion—it should be our next stop. We can sit together. You can have the window seat, if you want. But it’s a sad view. Oh, enough of this dissembling. Let me say it plainly: I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you. Not the spiders, please.”

It was Orange Juice—so called because she tended to drool—our prize Borneo orang-utan matriarch, zoo star and mother of two fine boys, surrounded by a mass of black spiders that crawled around her like benevolent worshippers.

from Life of Pi, by Yann Martel

Life of Pi is, for the most part, about the extraordinary circumstances of a precocious young Indian boy, Piscine Patel. When traveling by ship from India to his new home in Canada, the ship inexplicably sinks, leaving himself as the only survivor. The only human survivor, that is.

This is also my literary fiction choice for The Eclectic Reader’s Challenge 2012.

The story begins with the author struggling to write a novel when he comes across the inspiring story of Pi. Interspersed throughout the boy’s narrative from the early 70s are glimpses of the present Mr. Patel from the author’s viewpoint, now married and living in Canada.

The Good

Life of Pi, by Yann MartelThe narrative from Piscine’s point of view is engaging from the start, well before his adventures adrift in a lifeboat on the Pacific Ocean. He’s presented as observant, intelligent, and unapologetically idealistic—all traits that serve him well during his coming ordeal. In short, he’s one of the most likable characters I’ve encountered in a long time.

It’s also made apparent that he’s managed to retain much of his idealism, thanks to the briefly-presented encounters between him and the author in the present.

The Bad

I sincerely can’t find anything that I could describe as “bad.” This was a truly delightful read.

The Ugly

I read a Kindle version of the book, which was produced by a mainstream publisher. There were no typos or editorial issues that I can recall. I do have two small nits to pick, however.

First, the edition that I read was touted as being illustrated, yet there were no illustrations to be found. This is, of course, a minor issue that had absolutely no effect on the readability of the novel. I do know, however, that it’s possible to embed graphics in Kindle books, so their absence was disappointing.

The second issue had to do with formatting toward the end of the book. There’s a place where, while recuperating in a hospital in Mexico, Pi is visited by two representatives of the company that owned the sunken ship. They’re Japanese and have had a difficult journey to the hospital, and the ensuing interview is among the most humorous parts of the story. At the beginning of this section, there’s a note by the author that conversation between the two representatives in Japanese would be presented in a different font face—something which is also possible within a Kindle ebook. In this edition, however, there was no change at all. Although it wasn’t too hard to figure out which parts of the dialogue were asides in Japanese, it was a bit distracting.

Both of these issues involve reading the book in the Kindle app on my Android phone, and I was unable to peek at the code in the book to see if these features were actually present but just being rendered incorrectly, so it’s possible that reading on a Kindle device would be more complete experience.

Conclusion

Throughout the novel, Pi’s faith in his ability to survive strengthens, while his faith in who he believes God to be rarely wavers. And it’s clear that those faiths remain with him in the present day. This is definitely a five-star novel.

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