This short collection of 11 original spooky stories (editor Neilsen contributes one, along with ten other authors) is unified around the geographicalThis short collection of 11 original spooky stories (editor Neilsen contributes one, along with ten other authors) is unified around the geographical setting of New York's lower Hudson Valley, principally in and around Sleepy Hollow, the locale made famous by Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." (One story reaches up as far north as Kinderhook, where Irving penned much of the original tale.) Andrew M. Seddon, my Goodreads friend who kindly provided me with a free review copy, is the only one of the contributors I'd ever heard of or read before. That, and the short, tongue-in-cheek introduction supposedly by Irving himself, with its mixture of faux Early Republic prose style and modern slang, had me unsure of what to expect from the book, and of how seriously to take it. But I needn't have worried. All of the stories are serious in both tone and craftsmanship, and deliver a consistently high standard of literary quality.
That isn't to say that they all deliver happy endings. In fact, several of the stories are dark indeed, with evil (at least for the moment) triumphant at the end. Or they may be tales of the grim comeuppance visited on nasty characters (or both themes together); or the resolution may be a bittersweet one. Normally, I'm not a fan of tragic stories, or a triumph-of-evil motif. But every one of these stories are extremely well-written, and most of them are gripping page-turners that keep you totally involved, engrossed and guessing up to the very end. There are surprises in several of these that I did not see coming, but that grow completely naturally out of the story (rather than being tacked on in defiance of its internal logic, as R. L. Stine's "surprise endings" too often are). Even despite the number of dark reads, I couldn't give the collection less than five stars.
There's no explicit sex in any of the stories (Robert Stava's "The Dying Dream of Major Andre" has a PG-13-rated sexual situation, of sorts). Most selections have no bad language at all, or very little. Some of these are very much in the tradition of classic supernatural horror, in the direct continuum from the 19th and early 20th-century masters. Andrew's "Dead Men Rise" (one of this writer's best) is an excellent example of these, a traditional ghost story with more psychological depth and bite than most. A few others have some profane use of Christ's name, and the f-word shows up in two stories (only once in one of them); in the story with the worst language, "Hell to Pay" by Amy Bruan, most of it is spoken by a "potty-mouthed" demon from Hell, who's not presented as a sympathetic role model. Only two or three stories have directly described gory parts; but none of them are schlock.
Though he used the Headless Horseman legend, Irving didn't create it; it's actually a part of the area's folklore, and there's plenty more where that came from. Some of the contributors are oral folk storytellers, and Jonathan Kruk's "The White Lady of Raven Rock" and B. B. Stucco's "A Local Superstition" are re-tellings of local legends, the former especially with a folkloric flavor. (Irving, who was a pretty serious folklorist himself, would have heartily approved.) Several of the writers draw on this basic vein of material, with its folk magic and hauntings. Others range farther afield, with a visit from Dr. Frankenstein and his Creature, a hint of the Lovecraftian, and a vision out of the depths of horrific B-movie sci-fi. The tales are about equally divided between those set in olden times and in the present day; and several of them clearly benefit from an actual authorial knowledge of Sleepy Hollow and its physical and human geography.
Besides Andrew's story, my personal favorite is Christine Morgan's "By This Candle's Light." But the stories by Bruan and Stava have some real positives, too. Michael Nayak's "The Secret of Pendlewood Court" is probably the most intense of the eleven.
Short blocs of personal information on the contributors, arranged in the order that they appear in the book, are given in an appendix, "Those Responsible." The quality of the information is uneven (B. B. Stucco's is the least illuminating), suggesting that it was supplied by the authors rhemselves individually, not by the editor.
Most fans of supernatural short fiction, I believe, would like some or all of these stories. The collection is a little gem, and an excellent read for the upcoming Halloween season. (It's not currently for sale on Amazon, however, or at least doesn't appear in an Amazon title search; so it's best ordered directly from the publisher.)...more
Full disclosure at the outset: David Wittlinger and I are Goodreads friends, and in a couple of Goodreads groups together. Despite some off-putting asFull disclosure at the outset: David Wittlinger and I are Goodreads friends, and in a couple of Goodreads groups together. Despite some off-putting aspects of the book description, I was impressed by his attitude toward his writing, as expressed in his comments in these groups; so I wound up accepting his offer of a free e-review copy. (As yet, there is no print edition.) It turns out that mine will be the first actual review of the book here on Goodreads, so I feel a particular responsibility to do it justice.
Another of my Goodreads friends says that I tend, in reviews, to provide too much description of the contents of a book. I'll try to avoid erring in that direction here; and in that context, I'd say the Goodreads description probably also summarizes too much of this plot. To set up the premise is less detail, protagonist Brianna is a young ex-stripper who's now the live-in girlfriend of tough thug Wade, the shady bouncer at the mob-connected Cleveland strip club where she used to work. Brianna sees herself as pretty worthless, and doesn't expect to be loved; but she doesn't know that Wade is secretly video-recording their sexual encounters, and that he's done this to other girls as well. When she accidentally makes that discovery and he finds out she knows, he chokes her half to death, and locks up her car keys so she can't escape when he's called away temporarily. But he's underestimated her resourcefulness, and she manages to escape with her car, his laptop (and its sexual contents), a bag of his cash and his revolver, which she's grabbed for her protection though she's never held a gun before. Since he wants that computer back badly, and has a vengeful disposition and a long reach, she's in for a dangerous time.
The Goodreads description has a warning about sexual content and bad language, with good reason. We get a look here into the ugly world of the porn industry, with some nauseating descriptions of porn videos. We also have a couple of explicit sex scenes outside the porn context. Brianna's had a terrible upbringing that no child and teen should have to endure (but which huge numbers DO endure, in real life!), and her sexual attitudes are wildly misguided, at several levels. (Related to her view of herself as worthless, for instance, she likes being spanked, having her hair pulled and being called a "slut" during sexual activity.) That kind of thing doesn't make for pleasant reading. She also has, as another character observes, "a mouth like a sailor;" she uses the f-word a lot (like, as she points out, everyone else in her world) with some other bad language and occasional religious profanity, and we hear the same speaking style from Wade and his low-life associates. All of this is definitely off-putting, and made me struggle with the question of the rating.
So, why five stars? First, none of this material is gratuitous. The author has immersed us in Brianna's world to provide a realistic picture of what it's like --not to promote it, but to give us the motivation to change it. The immersion is graphic; more graphic than I'd have made it, but that doesn't mean the author's decision was wrong. Second, he's created Brianna as a fully-fleshed, realistic person and given her the freedom to be who she is, warts and all, as he shares with us the story of her personal growth, which is the core theme of this novel. (And like any baby learning to walk, she's going to have to crawl first.) Five stars means a particular work was "amazing." For me, this one did amaze in several ways: in the degree of artistic and moral integrity the author showed in handling difficult material; in the quality of his character development, in the strength of his message of growth and empowerment, and in the degree of complex emotional engagement with the characters that he was able to evoke. (I'm still sorting my emotions out, a day after reading it!)
Wittlinger writes with a great deal of craftsmanship --not just for a first novelist, but for any novelist. His plot is tight and linear, ably constructed. Violent action doesn't occupy relatively much of the text (though when it happens, it's gripping, intense, and nail-biting); the stress is more on character development and human relationship. (I considered this a plus.) Nonetheless, there's a high degree of suspense throughout; and the author's particularly adept in highlighting it by cliffhanger chapter divisions and changes of viewpoint character between chapters. His level of description and detail is, as Goldilocks might have said, "just right," and he makes adroit use of symbolism in places. The western Pennsylvania Appalachian setting is brought to life very nicely (I passed through the region once, so have some personal acquaintance with it). Both Brianna and Brandon are living, breathing characters you like in spite of their faults. And the ending is one that's particularly powerful, evocative and gut-wrenching --but no spoilers here!
Note: Like many self-published novels, this one was only proofread by the author before being published (and most authors will agree that it's hard to effectively proofread your own work). I promised him I'd proofread this one, and was able to identify a number of minor typos and editorial issues, which will be corrected later. But these did not interfere with my understanding of the text or my easy reading of it. Because I was proofreading, I read all of the sexual parts, without skipping over them as would be my usual practice. Readers so inclined, I'd say, could skip the porn descriptions without losing anything. But in this case, while most literary sex scenes are just gratuitous descriptions of a private process that has no actual significance for the reader, I think the other two sex scenes here should be read (even if they're distasteful), because they're actually revelatory of character and relationship. (Depending on their tastes, I don't think most readers would find these erotically arousing --for me, they were decidedly more of a turn-off!)
The Strong One is the first novel of a projected series. I'm now invested in Brianna, and interested in watching her future growth!...more
Dakiti is a rousing science-fiction action adventure yarn, far better crafted than today's average first novel. (I'm guessing that Transcendence PubliDakiti is a rousing science-fiction action adventure yarn, far better crafted than today's average first novel. (I'm guessing that Transcendence Publishing is a real small press, not simply a printing service for self-publishing authors; but in either case, Fisch has taken her craft seriously and given readers a polished work.) The premise appealed to my liking for action-oriented heroines, so I took the opportunity to try out the series by downloading this novel when it was offered free for a day. (I'll definitely be buying a print copy!) Through much of the read, I expected to rate the novel at four stars; and even now I'd say that, strictly speaking, it merits four and a half. But after being glued to the computer screen through the last chapters, I had to round it up, not down.
We have here a tale of interplanetary intrigue, set in a far-future galaxy widely colonized by humans, whose far-flung settlement has brought them into contact with various alien races. Our main series characters belong to one of these, the humanoid Haphezians. They're not really "super-human," as the Goodreads description asserts, but they are taller and more muscular than Earth humans, with strength and endurance to match; and with two stomachs, they only need to eat every few days. (Otherwise, they're physically much like humans, except for more vividness and variation in eye and hair color.) In this novel, we also meet another alien race, the reptilian Sardons. Characters from all three races will interact here, in a galaxy that's riven by tensions, and sometimes open warfare.
Much of human space is ruled by a powerful Federation. But some fringe human planets like Tantal maintain their independence; and as in the Star Wars universe, the Federation faces resistance from a guerrilla insurgency that has elite fighters, the Nosti, who have special telekinetic powers (unlike the Jedi, theirs are derived from injections every ten years with an illegal psi-enhancing drug). The Haphezian monarchy faces a terrorist insurgency of its own, called Solaris; and some years ago fought a war with the Sardons, who sought to end the Haphezian monopoly on the caura extract trade. Ziva and Aroska serve the Haphezian Crown as agents of the HSP, Haphezian Special Police; and Haphezians are much in demand from other, less combat-capable, peoples as allies or as mercenary soldiers. That's what's brought hereditary Tantali governor Enrike Saiffe and his son Jayden on a diplomatic mission to Haphez near the novel's beginning. (So, contrary to the Goodreads book description, Ziva and her team hardly "stumble on" the latter, and they don't discover an "age-old" plot --but there IS a plot to discover, and a nasty one.)
All of this political background is quickly sketched here in the process of narrating swiftly-moving events, without noticeable info-dumps (I expect it to be developed more in the succeeding books). Haphezian culture is suggested a bit more fully than that of the other two races involved here, but detailed world building isn't the author's strong point. Rather, her strong points are tight plotting, smooth and direct prose style that does what she wants it to, well-written action scenes (and a lot of them!), a conflict against a foe whose aims and methods are definitely evil, though that doesn't mean that we think the Haphezian regime necessarily resembles goodness incarnate; and above all, character development and interrelationships between characters. (We're not talking about romantic relationships here, but human relationships --and Haphezians are as "human" as you and I in those respects, regardless of how many stomachs they have.) Fisch throws some twists and turns into her plot (one of these I saw coming --but the satisfaction of guessing rightly is part of the fun!) and the last chapters especially are suspenseful right up to the end.
Ziva Payvan is a complex, round and dynamic character, embodying more than physical strength, good aim with a gun, and quick reflexes --though she's got all of those, in enough measure to make her a VERY formidable fighter in any combat situation; you definitely don't ever want her as an opponent! She's an intelligent, layered person with a capacity for strong feelings, an inner moral code, and a lot of loyalty; but she's not necessarily likeable. A product of a rough childhood and adolescence and of a dysfunctional family, she harbors some secrets and has made some bad choices, one of them really dark (view spoiler)[(as a teen, she murdered a drunken, but innocent, old homeless derelict, to prevent him from talking about something he saw her do that, under her planet's draconian laws, would get her executed) (hide spoiler)]. And her government has trained her, and used her, as a professional assassin for State-sanctioned killings, with attendant toll on her softer feelings. She's also abrasive, arrogant, and hot-tempered. But Fisch manages to make her a person you care about.
Aroska Tarbic is also a well-developed character, a strong, tough male well able to handle himself in combat, and with no problems about fighting shoulder-to-shoulder alongside of a woman. (Commendably, Fisch shows both male and female characters routinely taking fighting responsibility, and handling it well.) Indeed, all of the important characters here come to life in the author's words. Many of the situations and scenes here are powerfully emotionally evocative.
One aspect of the premise here is problematical: Haphez is a highly-developed, tech-savvy planet with a culture that undoubtedly boasts centuries of development. It seems implausible that they wouldn't have developed a more efficient judicial system, and a more efficient way of carrying out capital punishment, than they apparently have here. We can say the same for a few key details of the plotting that don't stand strenuous examination too well. And hard-SF buffs will quibble about the impossibility of real-time interplanetary radio communication between planets that are light-years apart, given the relatively slow speed of sound waves. (In Ursula LeGuin's fictional Hainish universe, an invention called the "ansible" eliminates this problem --we're not told how, it just does!-- but as far as we know, Haphez doesn't have the ansible.) None of these factors kept me from really liking the book, though! I plan to continue with the series.
Note: As an added plus, bad language here (strictly of the d- and h-word sort) is minimal, and there's no sex, explicit or implied. Very romance-phobic readers can approach this tale without fear. :-)["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
May 15, 2015: I recently received a free review copy of this story collection from my Goodreads friend Andrew Seddon, who has a story included in it, aMay 15, 2015: I recently received a free review copy of this story collection from my Goodreads friend Andrew Seddon, who has a story included in it, and started it a couple of days ago, with the intention of reading it straight through (though not at one sitting, of course!). After reading five stories, that intention foundered on the rocks of four out of those five. My second intention was just to mark it as "started-not-finished" and write a note explaining why, while calling attention to Andrew's story as an exception, since his work is always eminently readable. But after already starting another book, I discovered that the story by Andrew here is not, as I'd assumed, one I'd already beta read. So, I decided to put it on my "being read intermittently" shelf, and dip into it when I'm between other reads. So this review will be written in installments, as I read sections of the book.
Editor Woods is a Goodreads author, but I know nothing else about him. The unifying thread of the stories he included is that all of them were previously submitted to another publishing venue, but were rejected at least once (hence the title). As the short introduction here states, there are many reasons stories get rejected by editors (or by their assistants), many of which have nothing to do with their quality. His motive behind the collection seems to be to convince writers, and readers, that an editorial rejection isn't an infallible measure of a story's worth. As far as it goes, that's true (though I'd have rejected the majority of the five I read so far myself). In all, 36 stories are included. While the name of the author is given with each story, the table of contents lists only the titles (which makes it impossible to get a quick overview of the contributors!), and no information is provided for any of them beyond the names.
Jo-Anne Russell's "Elements," the lead story, is a fantasy-type tale that suffers a bit from using unexplained "magic" as a Deus ex machina to effect the outcome the writer wants; but I found it a satisfying story otherwise. The next four stories, however, though very different in setting (ranging from a fantasy-type world --though there's no magic element in the story-- to small-town Kansas in the middle of the 20th century, with two others in nameless contemporary urban settings) and premises, have in common a strict adherence to the basic canons of modern "literary" short fiction: a heavy concentration on banal detail, a basic ethos of bleakness and despair, and above all an avoidance of anything like real plot. These are lengthy vignettes, artistically drawn character studies of protagonists on one sort of meaningless treadmill or another, but they never do or decide anything constructive; if something happens (one of them is diagnosed with a brain tumor at the beginning), it happens TO them, not through their own agency. These are most definitely not my literary cup of tea.
July 9, 2015: In this latest go-around, I read 21 of the stories, a few of them out of order. (I also deliberately skipped one that has a vulgarism in its title, as not being very promising.) These proved to be a more mixed bag, both in genre, tone and quality; and as it turns out, none of them conform to the modern "literary fiction" model. That doesn't mean that all of them are worthwhile, however --several of them aren't.
The worst story of the bunch is "The Skin Crawler" by Glen Damien Campbell, which is a sick celebration of particularly sadistic serial killing and misogyny, with no redeeming element at all. A close second is Stuart Conover's "Saving the Flock," one of two "zombie apocalypse" tales here. Basically, I don't care for that sub-genre, because of the typical nihilistic and despairing themes. Those are here in spades, blended with a ham-handed anti-theistic and anti-Christian message. (Conover takes obvious glee in portraying a church as an ineffective sanctuary, and caricaturing the preacher as a self-serving, treacherous and delusional lout.) And in third place (and contending for second) is the repulsive, totally predictable vampire story "Labyrinth of the Undead" by Carl Thomas Fox, which substitutes the splatter-punk-style gory demises of its undeveloped and cardboard characters for anything resembling suspense or psychological depth. Sadism is a common note in all three, and all three authors palpably take pleasure in graphically depicting it for its own sake. These exercises in dreck should have stayed "Rejected."
While none of the rest are this bad, some of the rest of the stories here don't really succeed, either. "Eli's Coming" by David Perlmutter is heavily dependent on pop culture references for its whole conceit; if you don't recognize or aren't familiar with most of these (and I didn't, and wasn't) it loses its crucial element. While it has a real moral vision, Judi Calhoun's "The Crystal Blue Feather" is hard to get into and follow because it has an addled viewpoint character, and it uses intervention by a space alien as an unconvincing Deus ex machina to create the ending the author wants. "Hellfire" by D. L. Turpin had possibilities, but they're mostly unrealized because the story stays at a spiritually shallow level, and too much surrealism confuses the storyline and muddles the symbolism. Joseph J. Patchen attempts cultural satire of American materialism in "American Death," but his treatment is too over the top for most readers to be apt to take very seriously, and much of his "humor" isn't as funny as he thinks it is (especially the crude and sexist humor, and the ridicule of overweight females and hoarders).
A number of the selections here, however, are actually enjoyable. In "Life, Death and Resurrect," Naching T. Kassa creates a zombie apocalypse story that actually isn't nihilistic and hopeless; and while his female protagonist denies that she's "tough," she's a lot more so than she gives herself credit for. "Glass Beads" and "The Blind Watchman" (by Emily Martha Sorensen and Paul Williams, respectively) are very different SF yarns of alien/human interaction, but both solid and thought provoking. Several other stories are basically morality tales in their own way, character studies of the kinds of persons we shouldn't let ourselves become, and descriptions of their comeuppances (sometimes not by the most ethical means, but in a way that we still recognize as well deserved). Benjamin Sperduto's "Homecoming" is a powerful, well-crafted piece of weird fiction, and "Grandma Hartley's Angel Earring" by Shenoa Carroll-Bradd deserves mention as an original and effective supernatural fiction yarn.
IMO, the best stories in this batch were Andrew Seddon's Christmas-themed "The Christmas Shepherd" --the title character is a German Shepherd (of the four-footed sort)-- which illustrates many of the typical strong points of his fiction, as well as his abiding love for dogs; "And He Bought a Crooked Cat" by Fraser Sherman; and "New York's All Right (If You Like Saxophones)" by Marie Michaels. Though the former is set in 1957 and the latter in a future time perhaps 20-30 years from ours, both of the last two stories share more than the New York City geographical setting. Despite surface dissimilarities, they're thematically similar, in that they both successfully use surreal and uncanny, supernaturally-tinged events as metaphors for the need for freedom and spontaneity in human life.
This doesn't comment on every story I read this time around, but it does touch on the ones that are the most memorable (positively or negatively). Now, I'll be putting the book aside for awhile; but I'll return to it later!
July 24, 2015 The nine stories I read in the last few days finished up the book. In terms of quality, they were (again) very much a mixed bag.
"With the Wind" by Kevin Bannigan Jr. is the worst selection in this batch, a miserable piece of trash in which we get to follow the saga of a carelessly dropped, wind-blown paper towel as it causes all sorts of tragic death and mayhem for dozens of humans (and one squirrel). For the author, it's an obvious exercise in vicarious sadism and a pulpit for preaching ultimate meaninglessness and pessimism, but it quickly becomes boring and predictable (especially because all of the characters are essentially "Red Shirts" with whom we have no emotional investment whatsoever). A close second is T. Fox Dunham's "Your Old Life the Dream," which is yet another zombie apocalypse tale, making three (count 'em, three!) in one general anthology --what are the odds? This one is a classic example of why I dislike the sub-genre.
Several of the stories are flawed, but manage to entertain or create a connection with the reader. Gwen Veazey, in "Zyka's Last Escape," evokes a future Earth ravaged by global warming and economic collapse, and expecting a collision with asteroid fragments; those who can afford to are evacuating to Mars. Our protagonist (who can't afford to leave) is a computer-game addicted slacker who's beginning to try to take some responsibility for himself. We do become emotionally invested in him and engaged in his dystopian world; but ultimately this is a story that, in typical postmodernist fashion, doesn't go anywhere. Thomas Van Boening's "The Vines" is a passable sword-and-sorcery fantasy, but it begins in medias res and never lets us have much clue as to the broader story's beginning, which hurts its effectiveness some. The opposite problem affects Adam Zaleski's supernatural fiction yarn "Threefold" --it's highly original, with a likeable protagonist, and Jenna (to me, at least) is a wonderfully intriguing character, but we're left wanting to know a great deal more; it reads like the beginning of a story cycle, but we're not given the rest of the cycle here. :-( In "Three Prom Dresses," Priya Sridhar makes good use of Japanese folklore, but none of her characters are really well developed.
There are, though, three excellent stories in this mix. "To the Winners Go the Spoils," by Tim McDaniel, is top-drawer humorous fantasy, laugh-aloud funny in places, with a scenario that's probably taken from the world of video games (it also reminds me of the board game Dungeon, with its assortment of treasure-hunting heroes vs. varied monsters). Franklin Charles Murdock's "Two Shades of White," set in a small Iowa town, begins at a funeral after a car accident has tragically claimed the life of a fifth-grade schoolboy. Not a very promising premise --but this one will stand your expectations on their head. Finally, "A Warrior's Second Chance" by Ramsey Lundock, focusing on a wheelchair-bound single mom who's a former competitive karate contender, is a classic example of what general fiction in the great tradition can be. It's about many things: the mother-daughter relationship, the responsibilities of a parent, what strength and self-reliance really mean and what their limitations are. Any of the early 20th-century short fiction masters would have been proud to have written it; it stands in direct continuity with the kind of work they created.
In summary, my rating is an overall one; there are gems here that deserve five (or more!) stars, but you have to wade through a LOT of garbage to find them. It's also a poorly edited collection; the unevenness of the proofreading suggests that each author was expected to do his/her own, with no editorial assistance. The lack of any information at all about the contributors shortchanges the reader, and there's no good reason why they aren't named in the table of contents. Overall, the impression that's created is that Woods simply slapped the book together by combining whatever stories were submitted to him and dashing off a two-page preface. That's a poor parody of the work of a real editor, and a disservice to both the writers and the readers....more
When my wife gave me this book for Christmas, back in the 90s (I've got so many unread books piled in stacks that they tend to sit around a long time,When my wife gave me this book for Christmas, back in the 90s (I've got so many unread books piled in stacks that they tend to sit around a long time, alas!), my initial guess, having no prior experience at all with Duncan's work, was that the King's Blades series would be fantasy based on the Three Musketeers tradition in pop culture. That's not the case. The setting is a pre-technological world with affinities to our early modern one, and the King's Blades are an elite royal bodyguard; but that's really the only similarity. Chivial is actually more like 16th-century England than 17th-century France (and Ambrose IV has more than a passing resemblance to Henry VIII). There are nine books in the series, but this one, while it has an epilogue that opens the door for other stories, is a tale nicely complete in itself; it can stand alone very well. (Although I really liked this one, I don't expect at this point to continue the series.)
Duncan has created a fairly original magic system, based on conjurations of "spirits" associated with the eight elements that are recognized in his world's cosmology. (So this is a system of strictly invocational magic --the more sinister kind, compared to relatively innocuous incantational magic-- and it's not conceived in religious terms; the author's world-building makes no reference to religion, a decision which, as in Anne McCaffrey's work, probably reflects an antipathy to the latter.) Individual Blades are magically bound to the King (usually) or to another person designated by him, and until released from their binding have a conjured compulsion to defend their "ward" at all costs. The plot here spans much of one Blade's lifetime, but it doesn't unfold in strictly linear fashion; especially in the early chapters, Duncan jumps back and forth in time in a way that actually seems intended to confuse and misdirect the reader; but the basic shape of things is made clear after that. Taken as a whole, the structure actually works well; and some parts of the book are less episodic than they appear to be.
This is a page-turner; the pace is steady, and Duncan's story-telling is top-notch. The plot is ultimately well-crafted; the author's characterizations are life-like and rounded. He writes with wit, and an ear for the telling detail and phrase; there's a certain grittiness to the work, but the presentation is tasteful. Violence isn't any more gory in its depiction than it needs to be. While sexual attitudes in Duncan's fantasy world tend towards the earthiness that characterized pre-Victorian Europe, there's no explicit sex, and not a lot of reference to sexual activity. (To his credit, when our hero finds the lady he wants to marry, he's completely faithful to her from then on, despite circumstances in which many less honorable males might not be.) Bad language isn't a significant issue here (most of the expletives in the character's world might be vulgarisms there, but they aren't in our culture). And we do ultimately have a moral vision to the tale, a conflict between altruistic good and self-serving evil that requires moral choice, and that promotes virtue by example.
I'd probably rate this novel at four and 1/2 stars if I could. For me, the only real negative, besides the unrealistic indifference to the religious nature of human consciousness, is the "insta-love" connection between Durendal and his love interest. Yes, I do believe that two people can experience very strong attraction when they first meet. But I recognize that it still has to have some getting to know each other to nurture and develop. There essentially isn't any of that here; things accelerate from a first meeting (even if the young lady had her eye on him some time before) to a lifelong commitment with, IMO, very improbable speed. (And while I'll admit that the strategy she used to pursue the relationship demonstrated guts and decisiveness --albeit not the best moral judgement-- I definitely don't think it would work the same way with most males.) But that didn't keep me from appreciating the book overall! My wife also liked it (we read it together as a "car book"), so it can appeal to readers of both genders....more
Although the accurate Goodreads description for this collection of 12 original stories describes the mission of the TADSAW (Train a Dog, Save a WarrioAlthough the accurate Goodreads description for this collection of 12 original stories describes the mission of the TADSAW (Train a Dog, Save a Warrior, www.tadsaw.org ) organization, it neglects to mention that proceeds from the book sales go to support TADSAW's worthwhile work. My review copy was a no-strings-attached gift from my friend Andrew, one of the contributors. All of the selections are published here for the first time, though not necessarily originally written for this anthology.
T. H. Cragg's contribution here is a genuinely touching nonfiction memoir of the homecoming of his father's "war dog" after World War II. (Dogs trained for combat by the U.S. military were euthanized after the war, unless their former human partners were willing to give them a home; fortunately, in this case, T. H.'s dad was glad to do that.) The other contributors (editor Kyle also has a story included) all are represented by fictional tales. (The titular pun is obvious!) Three of these are mostly descriptive fiction (although one of these does have a supernatural element --but though integral to the plot, it's low-key); the others are speculative, mostly science fiction. Except for one story, the human lead characters are current or former members of the military, or military-like organizations. Their canine companions are mostly dogs, but in the SF yarns, they may be dog-like creatures (and wolves are represented in a couple of stories). These canines may play crucial, even life-saving roles in the story plots, or they may simply be loving companions for their humans. SF genre stalwart Kevin J. Anderson is the best-known author here (though I hadn't read any of his work before), and doesn't disappoint. But veteran anthology editor Kyle has assembled a quality collection here across the board! Every one of the selections is a good, worthwhile read; and all the authors have an accomplished, readable prose style.
My favorite of the descriptive stories is Kyle's "Partners," which has really engaging, believable characters; the perfect amount of texture, a nicely done premise and plot, and a skillful resolution. (I could like Blake, Micki and Steele --and Thor!-- as series characters!) World War II aerial combat is vividly evoked (in all its grisliest realism) in L. J. Bonham's "Sancho." And C. R. Asay succeeds as well in "The Greatest" at having an animal narrator, who thinks and feels the way we can actually imagine a dog doing (rather than coming across as essentially a human disguised with fur and four feet), as it's probably possible to within the conceit that a dog can be this verbal.
Andrew's "The Dancing Golden Girls" is in a class by itself among the speculative stories --not because the author is a friend or because I beta read the story several years ago, but because I genuinely like it. Set in 1927 Egypt, it's the first story of a cycle about World War I veteran Sheffield and his dog Baltasar, whose travels pit them against various sinister entities of a Lovecraftian sort, but handled without the existential pessimism that's often tacked on to HPL's own work. (Okay, I'm a sucker for this kind of thing, if it's well-done --and nobody does it better than Andrew!)
That story has a resolution to it, even though it's the start of a series. If the other speculative stories have a flaw, it's that the writers often dump us into the middle of events with a considerable back-story and a partially-built world with all kinds of features hat cry out for more explanation, but not really enough scope in the short format to fill in either; and they often don't have real resolutions, either. If I didn't know better, I could see some of them as novel excerpts. (S. A. Wallin's draconic fantasy "The Commanders Tail" is actually a "companion piece" to her still-unpublished the Dragon's Daughter.) Sometimes this was a bit frustrating, and I might have deducted a half star for this if I could have. But I was usually able to take this on its own terms as a reflection of life, where events often don't have tidy resolutions either. That said, Doranna Durgin's "Just Hanah" is a fine example of a well-done coming-of-age story. Anderson does an excellent job of creating palpable suspense in his near-future dystopin vision, "Dogged Persistence." Leah in Dana Bell's "Pack Rule" was a protagonist who intrigued me, and whom I'd like to have seen more of, or more developed, in terms of what's next.
None of these stories have any sexual content, and they either have no bad language or not an excessive amount of it. Violence is generally not too graphic, and it isn't there unless it needs to be. Darkness and death may be realities in the characters' world; but in any case, the messages are about hope and life. Highly recommended, to any readers who are lovers of hope and life!
Gifted author Andrew Seddon is both an able writer of science fiction and a serious student of Roman history and author of historical fiction set in tGifted author Andrew Seddon is both an able writer of science fiction and a serious student of Roman history and author of historical fiction set in that era. With this book, he brings the two interests together, and it's a marriage made in heaven. Several years ago, I beta read, and liked, most of the dozen tales that make up this story cycle (and Andrew was kind enough to mention me along with his other beta readers in the Acknowledgements here, though I wouldn't say I contributed that much!). When I accepted his offer of a review copy of the collection, I knew I'd like it; but I wasn't prepared for the magnitude of the achievement of the finished product. The addition of the bridging material and two final stories, and the slight edits to some of the other tales, shapes the whole into a genuine cycle, unified not just by sharing a protagonist but by an over-arching story arc, a journey of mind and soul that goes somewhere worth getting to.
Protagonist Robert Cragg's far-future "present" time is tied, by a couple of brief allusions, into the schema of the author's other SF (the galaxy is now at peace, and the evil Terran Hegemony has ended up in the garbage can of history -YAY!) A middle-aged (he's 40 when he makes his first time-trip; we're not told how old he is at the book's end, but a number of years have elapsed since then, and I'd guess around mid-50s) Roman Catholic intellectual who's fond of dogs, he has some similarities to his creator --though Andrew's doctorate is in medicine, not history. (He's an adult convert from high Anglicanism.) Robert has suffered an emotionally crushing blow --the loss, weeks apart, of both wife and daughter. Volunteering to be the first user of the new and untried time travel technology, for him, is a way of trying to escape from the pain of his present into a past where he can simply be a detached observer of people he doesn't have to care about. (But he'll find that reality doesn't work that way.)
The Roman Empire endured for half a millennium, centuries that saw epochal socio-political and cultural change, and it straddled three continents, comprising an area at least as large and varied as the continental U.S. The settings of the stories here range from 15 B.C. to 415 A.D., and from Britain to Palestine. There's ample scope for a variety of adventures, and the story plots will feature such things as earthquake, shipwreck, the horrors of ancient warfare (and we have front-row seats for two of the 1st century's grisliest), mob violence, religious persecution; we'll see gladiatorial combat, and the insides of a Roman dungeon. But for all that, the most important content of the stories is human character, human relationships, human growth and choices. And our narrator protagonist is brought naturally face to face with questions about meaning in a world of suffering and injustice, about theodicy, about providence and human responsibility. (It's worth noting that there are two theoretical approaches to time travel: one that sees the past as fluid, where time travelers can change what we know as the past and create alternate futures, and one that sees time as absolute, wherein if you do travel to the past, you can only do what you've already done. I find the latter more plausible, and that's also Andrew's approach. But that emphatically doesn't mean that your actions don't matter --it just means that they already have!)
All of Andrew's strengths as a writer are here: his wonderfully life-like, realistic characterizations; his just-right descriptive touches, not too much or too little; his smoothly integrated factual knowledge, his fine prose and emotionally evocative dimension, his deep and wide human sympathy. He's also a tough enough writer to face squarely into the tragic quality of life without flinching, and without losing hope. (A feature here that adds historical substance and realism to the stories is that all of them but the last have Dr. Cragg investigating the background behind an actual find of real-life Roman archaeology. A short appendix of notes gives information on these, and references for future reading.) IMO, this book may come to rank as Andrew's finest literary achievement (at least, to date!)....more
Full disclosure at the outset: Ron Andrea and I are long-standing Goodreads friends, and he offered me a free copy of this book (which, obviously, I aFull disclosure at the outset: Ron Andrea and I are long-standing Goodreads friends, and he offered me a free copy of this book (which, obviously, I accepted!) in exchange for an honest review.
The author is a Christian believer (as am I), in his case for over fifty years. A veteran of 30 years of military service, he currently serves as an elder and Bible teacher for Prevailing Word Ministries/Glen Allen Christian Fellowship, a non-denominational evangelical church in Glen Allen, VA. His book apparently grows out of his congregational teaching, and is structured as an exploration of the Apostle Paul's message(s) in the New Testament Epistle to the Romans. Written strictly for lay readers, it doesn't purport to be either an academic treatment or a verse-by-verse commentary, and there are no bibliography or footnotes. (He does draw on other writers in places, notably the early 20th-century Chinese Christian thinker Watchman Nee.) At 218 pages of actual text, and with jargon-free prose, this is a pretty quick read.
Passionate pastoral concern radiates from these pages; Ron clearly cares deeply about the message of the book, and writes from his heart with a clear desire to reach and engage with the reader. Like many (perhaps most) thoughtful contemporary Christians, he's highly dissatisfied with the sub-biblical thought and lifestyle of the modern American church, and its failure to impact the surrounding world with the gospel. At the risk of over-simplification, I would summarize his main themes here as: unconditional love of God and others is the basis of the entire Christian life; our moral transformation from selfish egoist to loving saint is something only God can accomplish in us, not something we can do for ourselves; and we'll never become what God wants us to be until we're totally surrendered to His will (to the point of the breaking of our own self-will). All of these messages are perfectly scriptural and true, and I think would be agreed on by virtually all Christian readers --though the author suggests that the main problem of the church today is that we don't seem to understand any of this in actual practice. There are a number of other valuable insights scattered through the text. The discussion questions that follow each chapter here are first-rate; a pastor or Sunday school teacher doing a series of lessons on Romans could profitably use these to encourage self-examination/discussion by students in his/her class.
A criticism that could be made is that, though the introduction states that the focus is on Paul's message in Romans, and the chapter headings progress through Romans section by section, relatively little of the text actually expounds the epistle. Main ideas of each section are identified from one or two verses, and then elaborated by quotes from other Pauline writings, other parts of the New Testament, and even the Old Testament. (One chapter even leaves Romans completely, digressing to cover Mark 14:3-9.) Now, exposition of Romans could certainly include reference to other Pauline letters where he makes similar points, or elaborates a point, and reference to the Old Testament sources of his thought (especially where, as he often does, he directly cites the Old Testament). But if you're expounding on the message of Romans, even if you aren't purporting to comment on it verse-by-verse, most of your discussion needs to be on the words of Romans itself. That proportion here is completely reversed. (Even when verses from Romans are quoted, they often aren't from the part of Romans that's supposedly being discussed!) Perhaps a viable solution would have been to make the book simply a discussion of Paul's message as a whole, and not to try to tie the framework directly to Romans.
Personally, I'm not as convinced as Ron is that misunderstanding the basic ideas he's presenting here is the source of the church's sorry state, nor that the message here will correct things if it's just read and taken to heart. (Indeed, I could see some readers distorting the message of spiritual/moral transformation as God's responsibility into an excuse for not bothering to cooperate with the process, though that isn't the author's intention or a fair interpretation of what he says.) Rather, I think the main problem of the church is a lack of understanding as to how the abstract ideas of love, moral transformation and consecration to God's will are to be lived out in practice. Each denomination has its comfortable standard of expected behavior (mostly handed down from the 19th century), that's been the way they've always lived; it's naively assumed that this lifestyle is exactly what Jesus and the apostles had in mind, and anybody that wants to go beyond it or try it by the yardstick of Scripture is weird and rocking the boat. We need a root-and-branch reexamination of the specifics of contemporary Christian attitudes and behaviors, more than we need re-assertions of the general principles. Another valid criticism here, then, is that this book is light on practical specifics of how to apply Paul's behavioral commands. Some specifics are touched on, indeed, but in very brief and undeveloped fashion.
Despite these criticisms, though, I think this is a book that can benefit some Christian readers. It would perhaps be most beneficial as a wake-up call to those whose dedication and practice is lukewarm....more
Aug. 13, 2015: Mike Ashley continues his tradition of quality fiction anthologies with this collection of maritime adventures from the age of sail. (AsAug. 13, 2015: Mike Ashley continues his tradition of quality fiction anthologies with this collection of maritime adventures from the age of sail. (Ashley is also the editor of The Mammoth Book Of Science Fiction.) The contents includes eight stories written for this book, and a dozen older selections, making 20 in all by 18 authors (the three by C. J. Cutliffe Hyne, all taken from his 1911 collection The Escape Agents, are treated as one in the Table of Contents here, since they're all part of the same story cycle). Of the older works, Herman Melville's novella Billy Budd, Sailor (first published in 1924, but written much earlier), is the only one I'd read before; I'll be reviewing it separately. Two out of these 12 are actually non-fiction memoirs, and five are novel excerpts, which in keeping with my usual practice I skipped. Arrangement of the material is chronological by setting; most of the selections are set during the Napoleonic Wars and the majority of the authors are probably British, but there are several exceptions to both of these generalizations.
As usual, I read the ten selections perused in this go-around out of order, choosing to take the older ones first. C. S. Forester is represented by "Hornblower's Charitable Offering" (1941), set during the Peninsular War, in which we find Horatio now a captain. This one is set against the real-life background of the Spanish prison island of Cabrera in the Mediterranean, where the Spaniards dumped some 20,000 French prisoners and held them under conditions that make the later Civil War prison camp at Andersonville look like a five-star luxury hotel. That's also the main setting/background situation in Hyne's three stories from the Escape Agents cycle; our title characters there are a Yankee adventurer partnered with a French actress turned spy, who've been commissioned by Napoleon to rescue as many Cabrera prisoners as they can. (One might expect that number to be zero --but don't underestimate their ingenuity!) These are some of my favorite stories in the book; despite my anti-Napoleon attitude, the plight of the French prisoners excites sympathy, and our underdog hero and heroine are likeable and easy to root for. ("The Pirate" is the best, and most thought-provoking, of the three.) "Dawn's Early Light" (1939), by Kenneth B. Atkinson, is set during the War of 1812 and has an American protagonist and perspective.
The other three stories I've read so far are all from the bloc of those original to the book (as are all of the remaining ones). Jane Jackson is one of two female writers represented here; her "The Enemy Within" is my top favorite story in the collection so far. "The Commander's Wife" is the contribution of the other distaff author, Harriet Hudson; it's an emotionally powerful tale, but difficult to discuss without spoilers. My own connection with Australia (where British-born author Richard Butler has long been resident) adds to the appeal of "The Battle of Elephant Bay," set on and off the coasts of New South Wales and Tasmania; but it's an excellent story in its own right. Interestingly, despite the fact that the navies of this era were all-male preserves, all three of these newer stories (along with the Hyne selections) all incorporate major female characters, who play significant roles and exercise real agency in their choices. That's a welcome touch!
While they can be a little dry in places, and suffer from the fact that they describe their important events from the limited perspective of an observer who was simply a bit player at the time (and include no historical context), both of the memoirs are interesting overall, and sometimes fascinating in their details. In "The Last Battle" (1905) the titular battle is the last one between wooden sailing ships, the 1827 Battle of Navarino during the Greek War of Independence, in which a combined British, French and Russian fleet destroyed the Ottoman Empire's Mediterranean fleet (which greatly outnumbered them) at anchor. Walter Wood is the author, but he reproduces the oral history told to him by Admiral Sir Erasmus Ommanney (d. 1904), who was present at the battle as a 13-year-old midshipman. "A Midshipman at Copenhagen" is part of the otherwise unpublished memoirs of one John Finlayson (1786-1845), and actually covers much of his early navy career (he enlisted in 1798 at the age of 11), not just the 1801 Battle of Copenhagen.
I'm putting this anthology aside for now, but I'll return to it the next time I'm between other books!
Sept. 25, 2015: My reading in this go-around finished the four remaining stories, all of them original to the book. Each of the four were ultimately very satisfying, definitely worth the read if you enjoy this sub-genre.
A "steeple rock" (as I learned here) is a submerged sharp spear of rock rising from the sea floor near shore, where it's shallow, and capable of puncturing the underwater hull of a wooden ship and sinking it. Though he has Navy experience, Richard Woodman's series character Nathaniel Drinkwater in "The Steeple Rock" now works for the government service, based in London's Trinity House, that oversees the system of lighthouses, buoys, navigational markers, etc. that assist ships in approaching England's often rocky coasts safely. (Before reading the story, I'd never heard of this service, either!) At the beginning, Woodman's writing is slow-moving, and heavy with nautical jargon even for this sub-genre (in many sentences, I didn't have much clue what was being referred to from the contexts, either). But the story became absorbing when he began his investigation of a shipwreck on the Cornish coast --an investigation that will involve not only nature, but the human element of a hostile and secretive fishing village. Drinkwater proved to be a genuinely likable character.
John Frizell's "The Victory" pits British sailors and marines against a French privateer, run into a deep bay on the Spanish coast where it's protected by a shore battery on the mouth. H.M.S. Angelica can't sail in after it; but can it be sunk another way? This is a well-done tale of Napoleonic-era warfare, enriched by a human element. (The title might suggest a spoiler --but then it doesn't say who's victory it's talking about.... :-) )
Set mostly during the War of 1812, "The Nantucket Sleigh-Ride" by Peter T. Garratt takes its title from 19th-cetury whaler's slang for a vessel being dragged helplessly behind a speeding whale, harpooned but still enormously strong and fast. This one is actually a prequel to Melville's Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, and would be especially meaningful to those familiar with that work, as we get a look at a much-younger "Mr. Ahab" and the beginnings of his dark obsession.
With its setting on the Mississippi River in 1862, during the Civil War riverine naval battles centering around Vicksburg, "The Stolen Command" technically doesn't fit the collection's theme, dealing as it does with combat between engine-driven ironclads. But the adventure and action elements are thoroughly comparable to those of the other stories, and would be enjoyed as much by most fans, IMO. This one is told from the Confederate side; its downside is the off-putting racism of the whites which the author doesn't share, but reflects (and which would actually have been as much in evidence in the northern military, though modern revisionist and hagiographic writers gloss that over), and the fact that Jase Miller isn't a very likable protagonist -though he's more so than his ostensible ally and rival. But the tale succeeds despite its flaws. It's apparently purely the work of Walter Jon Williams' imagination --but it's so plausible and realistically told, and fits the context of the situation at the time so well, that I actually looked for a real historical background in a couple of books that would have covered it. (Didn't find one, though!)...more
This is another of many thematic anthologies in the supernatural genre edited by the late Peter Haining. I'd previously read and really liked two of tThis is another of many thematic anthologies in the supernatural genre edited by the late Peter Haining. I'd previously read and really liked two of these, Great Irish Tales of Horror: A Treasury of Fear and Mummy: Stories of the Living Corpse. Here, the focus is on vampire fiction --specifically, fiction centering on the figure of the vampire hunter, rather than on the vampire as such. IMO, the overall quality of this collection wasn't as good as was the case with the others, which is reflected in the lower star rating for the book as a whole. (The individual stories, if they had star ratings, would run the gamut from five stars to one -or lower than that, if possible!)
Arrangement of the 15 selections is chronological (except for the Preface), ranging from 1872 to the 1996 publication date; the writers represented are all British or American, and include both well-known names and more obscure ones. (Haining himself contributes a story.) I'm counting the Preface as a selection, since it consists simply of an excerpt from Dracula, in which Dr. Van Helsing discourses on the characteristics of vampires. Three other novels are represented by excerpts here: Le Fanu's Carmilla, The Vampire (1935) by Sydney Horler, and The Night Stalker by Jeff Rice. (The latter isn't clearly introduced as an excerpt, and then proceeds to end on a cliffhanger; I consider this an instance of rather slipshod editing.) Not all of the protagonists are full-time vampire hunters. Several, like Manly Wade Wellman's John Thunstone and Seabury Quinn's Jules de Grandin, are all-around occult detectives who happen to be taking on a vampire in the particular story here; and two of the tales don't really feature an actual vampire hunter figure at all.
Of the 11 actual short stories here, roughly half (five) are of pre-1960 vintage. Overall, I liked these better than those in the second half, although Uel Key's "The Broken Fang," written during World War I, is easily one of the poorest in the book --not only lacking in internal logic, but saturated with an ugly demonization of all ethnic Germans and particularly aimed at whipping up fear and hate of England's naturalized German citizens. But Wellman's "The Last Grave of Lill Warran," which showcases all the wonderful strengths of his writing, is my favorite story in the whole book. "The Man Who Cast No Shadow," the first Jules de Grandin story Quinn ever wrote, is also the first, and only the second story by Quinn, that I've read; I'd readily read more of both. Arabela Kenealy and Claude Askew (whose wife Alice was actually a writing partner in much of his work) were both writers new to me, and I liked their stories. Aylmer Vance, the Askew's occult detective, introduced in 1914, might have become a much better-known character of the type but for the authors' tragic death together at sea in 1917. Haining credits Kenealy's titled occult detective series character, Lord Syfret, with the "vampire hunter" role in her psychic vampire tale "A Beautiful Vampire;" but in keeping with the author's feminism, the real work here along that line is done by the very capable Nurse Marian. Indeed, a positive point of this volume, in both halves, is that a number of selections feature strong female characters in active roles (though Quinn gives us a conventional passive damsel in distress).
The postmodernist "triumph of evil" theme (which is not my literary cup of tea) is noticeable in most of the stories in the second half of the book, and detracted from my reading satisfaction there; it doesn't reflect the genre's classic tradition, or the classic moral tradition of Western literature in general. Three of the six stories here use Stoker's Van Helsing as a protagonist or invoke his name, and are presented in some way as continuing or tied in to Dracula; but their literary vision is quite different from Stoker's. And one of these authors, Peter Tremayne, gets his facts wrong; he represents Van Helsing as a bachelor, but Stoker mentioned his invalid wife! Tremayne's "My Name Upon the Wind," however, is one of the best-written and most suspenseful works in this batch (and the only story here actually written for this anthology). Anne Rice's also very well-written "The Master of Rampling Gate," set in 1880s England, is my favorite story in the post-1960 group; she's the only writer here to humanize the vampire as something besides an automaton of evil, and this tale lacks the squalid tone of Interview With the Vampire. Though German-born David J. Schow is most associated with splatter punk, his "A Week in the Unlife" isn't that; it's grim and dark (and has a chilling reference to an ugly act of necrophilia), but it's a morbidly fascinating exercise in plot-twisted ambiguity and unreliable (or is it?) narration. The one story I didn't finish here was Karl Edward Wagner's "Beyond Any Measure," which not only has a reincarnation theme (which I don't care for), but blindsided me out of nowhere with an unexpected, very explicit lesbian sex scene. (Some readers would eat up both of those aspects with a spoon; I just don't happen to be among them.)
A helpful feature of the collection is the page of bio-critical information on each author that precedes the selections. Haining's introduction, though, is mostly an introduction to his interest in the topic of the anthology than to the literature with this theme....more
Note, July 6, 2014: I edited this just now to correct a minor typo.
Being a little-known author myself, I have a lively appreciation of how difficult iNote, July 6, 2014: I edited this just now to correct a minor typo.
Being a little-known author myself, I have a lively appreciation of how difficult it is to get one's work noticed in a glutted book market without a major advertising budget; and I have a soft spot for New Pulp. So, when I stumbled on Goodreads author Percival Constantine's free e-book versions of a couple of his action-adventure novels, I thought there was a good enough chance I'd like them to risk investing a bit of time, and hopefully be able to give him a good review. (I always do this with the intention that if I like the book, I'll buy the print copy --which, in this case, I'll be doing.) While this novel is nowhere near four or five star territory, it kept my interest and earned its three.
As the Goodreads description indicates, our protagonist here is a female archaeologist. Constantine's idea of archaeology, though, is definitely of the Indiana Jones variety, and Elisa Hill proved to be an action heroine type, very much a literary equivalent of Lady Lara Croft or TV's Sydney Fox in that respect. (Given that I own both Tomb Raider movies on VHS and never missed an episode of Relic Hunter if I could help it, it's not hard to guess that I found her an appealing character type!) This is the series opener for the author's Myth Hunter series, the titular hunter(s) being involved in tracking down both archaeological and supernatural mysteries. (While I didn't classify this as supernatural fiction, it does have a significant supernatural element, in the person of one character.) In this particular book, though, what's being investigated isn't really "ancient myth," but 19th and early 20th-century occultist myth: the idea of an ancient continent (known as Lemuria, or Mu) in the area of what is now the Pacific Ocean. In particular, it draws on the claims of Col. James Churchward (1851-1936), who asserted that as a British officer in India, he was shown secret tablets in an (unidentified) temple, written in the "Naga-Mayan" language --which, as far as actual philologists know, doesn't exist; he claimed that only three people in India could read it, but one of them taught him-- that purported to show that 50,000 years B.P., Mu had a civilization more highly advanced than that of his own day, and that all the world's later civilizations developed from their scattered colonies after the motherland continent sank beneath the Pacific in a great cataclysm. (As a kid, I read some of Churchward's books, which belonged to a boarder we had who was into the weird; even then, I could tell that they were off the wall, but reading this book brought back memories.) Constantine takes off on this premise to build his plot here. Since the whole Mu-Lemuria theory is pretty well discredited by both geology and serious archaeology, philology, etc,, this requires some suspension of disbelief. But if you can muster this, Constantine has done his homework in the Churchward canon, and also brings in another real-world tie-in, Japan's "Yonaguni Monument," massive offshore stone formations under the Pacific which some maintain are man-made (though that isn't clearly evident nor widely accepted by archaeologists). He also has done some research into the Japanese folklore of the kitsune, Japanese for fox; older foxes were believed to have power to take human form, and were messengers for the spirit world. (Constantine --who's a resident of Japan-- has reinterpreted this mythos somewhat, but he clearly hasn't forgotten his basis.)
This is not a deep or highly textured read; it's straight pulp action-adventure, with a simple, direct prose style and a full-throttle narrative drive that makes for a quick read. None of the characters are very deeply developed, including Elisa, and while the author takes us to some exotic locales, he doesn't really evoke much sense of place in any of them. (We also aren't even given any clue where "Burroughs University," where Elisa teaches, is located, except that it's in the U.S.) Archaeological finds here tend to be too easy for believability; no physical digging or excavation nor much textual or other research to identify sites is required. Where action scenes are concerned, Elisa's no slouch in the kick-butt department; she's an ethically sensitive person who doesn't fight unless she's attacked, but if she is, she fights to kill without batting an eye. However, her aversion to guns and preference for edged weapons, in a modern-day context, isn't explained credibly enough to seem realistic. We can say the same for the tendency to use swords rather than guns on the part of the minions of the "Order" (think, the Illuminati on steroids :-) ), which will probably be the series' staple evil entity. Also, some of the jumps characters make in the action scenes, with no running start, are implausible, as is the idea that a character could stop a bullet by slicing it with a sword. And I'm not sure a fox could inflict all the physical mayhem Asami does here (granted, we're told she's a very large fox, but how large isn't specified). It's also clear that Constantine doesn't know much about how academic sabbaticals are scheduled.
For all that, this is a page-turner with "brain-candy" appeal, and the good characters are engaging. I was hooked enough to read it all the way through just to see how it would turn out; and while it's more plot-driven than character-driven, Elisa's relationship to Lucas, and to Asami, have enough complexity and ambiguity to be interesting. There's no sex here; there's some bad and coarse language, including f-words, but it's not pervasive and mostly comes from characters you'd fairly expect to be potty-mouthed. The violent episodes can be lethal and gory, but they're over quickly and not dwelt on. Bottom line: this won't be epochal and groundbreaking even in the world of pulp adventure fiction; but it's workmanlike entertainment (and pretty well proof-read, too, despite one mangled sentence that slipped through). I'd be up for reading the sequel sometime, and am interested in checking out the author's other freebie as well. ...more
Most people who've read very much at all about World War II are aware that Germany, as well as the U.S., had an active atom bomb development program.Most people who've read very much at all about World War II are aware that Germany, as well as the U.S., had an active atom bomb development program. Not many, however, are aware (I wasn't, before encountering this book!) that Japan did too --and indeed, that information was only declassified relatively recently. First novelist Lee draws on this new historical information to create a riveting espionage thriller --and the adjective "high-octane" in the description, for once, isn't just hype!
After a blood-drenched prologue set in Tokyo in 1937, our story focuses on Mina Sakamoto (b. Nov. 6, 1927 --so she's recently turned 14 at the time of Pearl Harbor). Born and raised in multi-ethnic Honolulu, she's a Nisei, an American-born offspring of Japanese immigrants, who's largely Americanized and sees herself as American. The smart and precocious daughter of a medical doctor, she's been unofficially trained to function as a practical nurse; she's also good at languages (in that setting, a pretty crucial social skill) and something of a tomboy, good at roller skating and hunting rabbits with a slingshot. This background is going to come in handy, because the events of Pearl Harbor will propel her into becoming, before she's 15, a full-fledged field agent of the OSS (Office of Strategic Services --nicknamed "Oh So Secret" by its initiates), the World War II-era predecessor of the CIA. ("Coral Hare" is her coded radio callsign.) Out of 64 chapters, the last 50 focus on the spring and summer of 1945, when the now 17-year-old goes up against Japan's A-bomb program.
Despite the teen protagonist, this is definitely NOT YA fiction as such (though some teen readers would eat it up with a spoon). There's no sex (except for a rape scene, but we thankfully don't get a graphic description of the whole incident); while it's noted in passing that Mina wants to marry and have kids one day, that's an aspect of her life that's understandably on hold in the face of other priorities (like staying alive). But there is a LOT of violence. I'd say that 80-90% of the book consists of fighting action, in which absolutely no punches are pulled by the combatants or the author, or of horrific descriptions of the effects of bomb blasts, both conventional and atomic, on human beings; the mayhem is very graphic, gory and grisly. There's also a noticeable amount of bad language; much of it is of the d, h, and s-word variety, but there's some actual profanity too, and I counted eight uses of the f-word. (For the speech of U.S. soldiers, that's arguably not unrealistic --but would Japanese-language speakers have been very apt to use it, especially before the U.S. occupation?)
The author's obviously extensive research and historical accuracy is a significant strong point for this novel; but he does a good job of not shoe-horning all of his research into story-slowing info-dumps. This is accomplished partly by the use of footnotes, which the reader can read or ignore, a device that works well here, IMO (I personally wasn't interested in things like the identification of models of military hardware, but World War II buffs or gun enthusiasts, for example, might be; and other notes were quite educational) and through several fascinating historical appendices, which make it clear how much real-life history (TONS!) was incorporated into the narrative, as well as added bonuses on things like real Allied female spies in the war, and an honor roll of real Japanese-Americans in the OSS. (Lee shows a clear and commendable respect for the courage and sacrifice of the "Greatest Generation," to whom the book is dedicated.) Mina's age poses some credibility problems (the biggest one, that Lee mostly ignores, being parental consent for her going off in the first place!); but a doctored birth certificate and some string-pulling help to address these, and the description of her grueling OSS training provides necessary believability for her transformation into a kick-butt warrior. Lee handles the intervening years between this and her climactic 1945 missions very adeptly. The story arc in general is constructed artfully, with personal growth on Mina's part, and a nice depiction of the relationship between her and her mentor.
For the most part, Lee handles language and diction capably; unlike some self-published works, the prose here is always clear and readable. (While there are a few typos that slipped through, it also appears to have had some conscientious effort at proofreading.) There are a few cases of sentence construction that's incorrect, and misuse of a couple of words (a character lying "prone on her back" when prone means face down, and a confusion of "flanking" with approaching from behind), isolated instances of redundant language, and sometimes details that don't ring true in the context --for instance, Mina being at a diner for two hours, and still not being done eating a hamburger. But these aren't big problems.
Mina is definitely a remarkable literary creation, who takes her place immediately in the pantheon of unforgettable characters in the pulp action tradition. She's definitely a well-drawn, round character, with an industrial-strength level of indomitable spirit and courage, and fighting prowess that's second to none. Allowing for differences in their setting and weaponry, she has enough similarity to Billy Wong's Iron Rose (at least, in Iron Bloom) to make comparison and contrast between the two girls instructive: they're both teens who've had to grow up quickly (but who yet retain touches of the teen), both super-lethal fighters with massive kill counts, and both possessed of endurance and recuperative powers that amaze observers. But while Lee is by far the better stylist, Wong actually creates the deeper and more personally appealing (to me, at least) character. Rose's motive for picking up the sword as a career is desire to protect innocents from harm. That plays into Mina's motives in her final missions here (as does patriotism), but she's originally and mainly motivated by desire for revenge. She's got good reason, and I can respect it; but she's on a darker journey than Rose's. And while Rose is bothered by killing, even when she knows it's necessary, Mina not only clearly isn't, but more darkly, she at times appears to enjoy inflicting mayhem. That makes her harder to like at a deep level.
Related to this, there's also a certain sense of missed possibilities for serious moral reflection here. Most obviously, Mina is on a mission to stop WMDs from being built and deployed --and any time you try to stop that, you're doing something constructive. But while she doesn't harm any civilians herself, she also knows about the U.S.'s mirror-image Manhattan Project (which a field operative like herself probably wouldn't have in real life) and doesn't appear to have any problem with it. She's also present for the firebombing of Tokyo, in which more civilians died than in both atom bomb attacks combined (the "justifying" excuse was that the breadwinners of the massacred families worked in defense plants --which the U.S. would have rejected out of hand if the Japanese had been able to bomb, say, Detroit for the same reason); but if it causes her to think about anything but her own survival in the situation, it's not apparent. What comes across is sort of an "us against them" mindset that can translate into "Japnese WMDs and atrocities against noncombatants = bad; U.S. WMD's and atrocities against noncombatants = good;" like the Japanese villains running the A-bomb program (who operate with the same equation, but flipped around), the impression is that anything you do to the "Enemy" is okay because they're the enemy. Certainly, that's realistic for the time and place; it's exactly the attitude that characterized most people on both sides of the war. (Mina, at least, doesn't have the racism that fueled that attitude, on both sides.) And just as certainly, tainted actions by one's co-belligerants don't justify inaction in a war against great evil. But I missed the more substantial kind of moral reflection that would have lifted this into five-star territory. True, the depictions of human suffering from both conventional and atomic bombs here certainly might inspire some of that kind of reflection in some readers; but I don't think that was Lee's direct intention. (I'd also argue that by the summer of 1945, Japan could not have won the war even if they'd built the A-bomb; and I have serious doubts that the OSS ever used torture to interrogate prisoners. We know the Germans and Japanese did --and probably the Soviets too; they certainly used it to force "confessions" in the Stalinist purge trials of the previous decade-- but apart from the ethical issues, I think U.S. intelligence realized how unreliable it is as a way of getting honest information.)
All of that said, though, whatever it isn't, this novel is a very good example of what it is: an unabashedly pulpy, edge-of-the-seat thrill ride through hell and back, with a take-no-prisoners heroine who's in a new mortal jeopardy every time you turn around, and who'll keep your heart in your mouth every minute. (Remember, this isn't a series book; there's no guarantee that our gal's going to make it home, even if we want her to!) If you're an "action junkie" (as one of my Goodreads friends describes himself) you'll for sure get your fix here, and then some. :-) This would have real possibilities for an action movie adaptation (which would definitely be rated R for violence); and if it's ever made, it's going on my to-watch list!
Added note, April 26, 2014: I almost forgot the required full disclosure: the author gave me a free review copy, just because I'd called the book "intriguing" in a comment. No guarantee of a good review was asked or given! (And yes, Mina does take a prisoner on one occasion; "take-no-prisoners" is a figure of speech. :-) )...more