Sunday, December 18, 2011

Book Review: Coal Black Horse by Robert Olmstead

Coal Black HorseCoal Black Horse by Robert Olmstead
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Stonewall Jackson is dead.

It's 1863 Civil War America and a mother with a premonition pulls her son, Robey, from bed in the pre-dawn hours and gives him one command, go to the battlefields and bring your father home. Without Jackson, the Confederacy is lost, and the war is just as good as over.

Jarring immediacy, and sleepy eyed confusion are perfectly handled in the prose that opens the novel, and it pulls one into the worry and wonder at having a great and terrible task suddenly thrust upon them. Fourteen year old Robey is sent from the farm with sparse supplies, a double-sided blue and gray jacket, the family horse, and a stern warning from his mother about survival, when to kill, and never to trust a stranger on any circumstance.

At this point you know Robey's journey is going to touch upon and break every one of his mother's admonitions.

A kind acquaintence swaps out Robey's exhuasted horse for a the loan of a magnificent coal black Hanoverian stallion. This is where the novel differs greatly from other similar tales featuring title animal characters. The black horse is not anthromorphized, or otherwise blessed with such precious importance that it steals the novel from Robey. The horse becomes more spirit guide then protagonist as he shelters the tender boy, carries him tirelessly, and comforts him. When the horse is stolen from Robey after the boy disobeys his mother's first warning about strangers, the coal black horse becomes something to fight for.

Yes, Robey is on a journey to find his father, but before he can, he must first suffer and struggle on a quest to reclaim his horse. The horse becomes a symbol for the strength and manhood Robey must first attain before he's truly prepared to face the quest for his father.

The novel's imagery becomes stark, brutal, apocalyptic even, as Robey's journey takes him. Even at its quiet moments there's a pervading eerie beauty both in prose and in proceedings. The sight of a horse's skeleton intertwined with foliage, the meeting of a man dressed as a woman, tending geese, and so covered in lice his flesh shimmers, are so fantastic as to make one think of fairy tale or Greek myth.

The Gettysburg battlefield serves as the centerpiece for the novel, a meeting place of fate and enemies. Robey meets once compassionate townspeople who have become mercenary, defends dying wounded men from being eaten alive by wild pigs, and witnesses the eternal hunger of those who loot the dead. There is no glittering heroism here, there is no romance in war.

The scenes are increasingly ghoulish, graphic violence, vivid descriptions of the rotting dead, and a brutal rape are witnessed by Robey. The rape and the quest for the horse both become important side plots in shaping Robey's future, just as surely as the search for his father does.

This book is swiftly read, and held my heart from beginning to end. Robey's journey changes him steadily and it is with something akin to sisterly pride I felt in watching this boy grow to a man in his journey through hell on Earth over a time spanning less than a year.

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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

A peerie bit a writing news!

I have a tiny haiku included in the anthology 140 and Counting, edited by Joanne Merriam. It is available for $4.99 and worth the buy. If you have a kindle or the free kindle for desktop app, then by all means snag yourself a copy. :) My short and deadly, "The Sadness Will Last Forever" appeared in issue 100 of Short, Fast, and Deadly. You can read it for free on the site or buy the print edition for $6.00.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Book Review: New Beginnings by Rebecca Emin

New BeginningsNew Beginnings by Rebecca Emin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of the most pressing issues epidemic amongst our young ones today is bullying. Granted, kids left to their own devices will often pull towards a pecking order war like a pen of puppies dragging each other by the ears, but the trend in bullying these days has gone far beyond that. Tales of bullied children as young as eleven or twelve committing suicide over bullying are become so commonplace that headlines are losing their ability to shock us.

Now is a perfect times for fiction and film to deal with the issue, and Rebecca Emin's novel, "New Beginnings" confronts the issue gently, and thoroughly.

Sam Hendry is the eleven year old protagonist of this children's novel, and the premise is a familiar one: a young girl leaving her old life and arriving at a new school only to meet on her very first day a bully who takes an instant dislike to her. The bully in question is a fellow classmate of Sam's, a girl named Molly who begins by first taunting Sam, and then progressing to snide physical assaults. Sam endures this privately, fearfully, dreading each Monday morning when the new week would begin and a new day of dealing with Molly's baseless hatred.

Emin writes Sam's point of view without melodrama. Sam suffers, and bad things happen, but the book is not punctured at any point by acts of violence or trauma or operatic self pity so great that a reader feels as if it's unrealistic. Any young reader suffering a similar situation could easily identify with Sam as she goes about her day, making a small group of friends, hiding the bullying from her parents, yearning to get her own computer, and singing her heart out to her favorite CD's.

No magical fixes to her problems are offered, the lessons Sam learns in the story are lessons easily applied by any of the potential young readers of this book. Helpful solutions are introduced in the story, and are quite crucially applied as the levels of Molly's bullying begins to escalate to actual physical injury for Sam. The danger is real, but not so much as to make any of the young readers faint of heart.

There are many nice things in this story, Sam's ambitions to sing, her first crush, a surprising first kiss, all written with bright optimism and tenderness. For everything bad that happens to someone, there are still things to strive for, it's a comforting message and one very accessible to the reader.

If I have any snags with this story it would only be of the nitpicky nature, there is a bit of name brand dropping, and as a matter of personal taste I've never cared for that in a story. I also would have liked to have seen a bit more insight into Molly's motivations--but this story wasn't about her, it didn't need to be. In the end it's Sam Hendry's story, and a sweetly told one it is.

I was touched by it on a personal level with memories of being a shy kid at school, and of the daily anxiety associated with various worries. It's a very genuine story told by a very good writer, and a good one for any young reader to have in their library.

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Thursday, December 8, 2011

Book Review: Double Dexter by Jeff Lindsay

Double Dexter (Dexter, #6)Double Dexter by Jeff Lindsay
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"Double Dexter" is the latest Jeff Lindsay novel chronicling the escapades of everyone's favorite serial killer hunting serial killer, Dexter. I must admit, I have never before read a Dexter novel, nor have I seen the popular television series based upon these books, so perhaps "Double Dexter" was not the best place to begin. The opening paragraph, heavy with self importance and adjectives, grated on my nerves as anything pregnant with unnecessary description could. The entire first third of the novel, which followed Dexter in the midst of carving up a pedophile and being spotted by a stranger, to obsessing over his wife's cooking, and convincing himself he is not human as he moons over his toddler daughter, moved very slowly for me. This is where anyone already familiar with the series would probably have no problem, as they would already need no introduction to the various characters surrounding Dexter, and their importance to his life.

As Dexter putters around his life of domestic bliss, and deals with office politics in the police station, I was able to gather bits of information about the supporting characters, a brother who is also a serial killer, a sister on The Force who also knows about Dexter's habits, a badly maimed co-worker with a vendetta to bring Dexter, I began to wish I was reading one of those other books, where something interesting actually happens. We're told about a serial killer who is literally hammering police officers to death, and we're told that Dexter murders a pedophile who had it coming at the opening of the book, but there really is no vivid description--for anyone who is a gore fan, nor is there any real insight into the proceedings or killers other than the mere statement that something has happened, or something is happening.

The only real insight the book offered was Dexter's repetitive assertion that he is a sociopathic reptile incapable of human love or feeling on what felt like every page, and in response to every human flinch around him. I felt like shaking the book and yelling, "OK I get it! You're a psycho WHO CAN'T FEEL EXCEPT YOU TOTALLY CAN CAUSE YOU'RE SO OBVIOUSLY IN LOVE WITH YOUR BABY OMG IRONY!!!!!"

Dexter begins to receive a series of emails on his work computer from the very man who had witnessed him at his dark deeds in the novel's opener. The cat and mouse game ensues. This leads Dexter to a place he is not comfortable with--uncertainty, worry, and an overall dulling of his senses. Dexter's preoccupation leads to sloppiness in his home and work life, and to a series of unfortunate events that really makes him seem foolish in the face of his budding adversary.

The novel sparked for me at this point. Dark humor and suspense mix as Dexter tries to juggle his domestic responsibilities alongside that of his work, and the dark urges that lead him to hunt, kill, and dismember. Dexter's two step-children factor largely into the story at this point, and are quite feisty little buggers to boot. The plot moves swiftly to a very satisfactory finish done in by a bit of overkill.

This is a book I can see being a good read to pass an afternoon, or a plane ride, but I can't imagine ever reading this specific volume again. Although, the swiftly moving middle to end of the novel did pique my interest in Dexter the character, and in all of the previous events in his life that were alluded to in the novel. So I will be checking out previous volumes in this series. In the meantime, I really hope whatever Jeff Lindsay has planned for the next volume goes a lot better.

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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Book Review: Disaster Was My God: A Novel of the Outlaw Life of Arthur Rimbaud

Disaster Was My God: A Novel of the Outlaw Life of Arthur RimbaudDisaster Was My God: A Novel of the Outlaw Life of Arthur Rimbaud by Bruce Duffy
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The tumultous relationship between the legendary French poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine takes a surprising backset in this biographical novel that is ultimately the fictionalized portait of the embittered battlefield that is the bond between mother and son. The Rimbaud/Verlaine relationship would seem like the obvious centerpiece for this novel, and indeed it does crackle the pages with chilling power when it is covered. It is not to Rimbaud and Verlaine we are first introduced to in this novel; it is to Rimbaud's mother as she supervises the exhumation of two of her dead children--her daughter Vitalie, and the famous Arthur Rimbaud. When preference is given to Arthur's corpse over that of Vitalie's, Madame Rimbaud is horrified.

From here we see the history of Madame Rimbaud's life, motherless, sexually abused by her father, abandoned by her drunken brothers, and abandoned by her drunken husband. All of these factors form to create an ascerbic, controlling woman who relies only on her own cunning business intelligence, and the obedience of her bullied children to get by in life. When the teenaged Arthur breaks from her stifling grip, she cuts herself emotionally from him, forevermore seeing him as the failed, useless male, that her father and brothers represented to her.

From there we learn of Paul Verlaine's naive, pregnant, teenaged wife, and of Verlaine's eccentric and forgiving mother who also keeps the preserved fetuses of his miscarried siblings in glass jars. The inner lives, and social plight of these women, trapped in a world where a good beating from a husband is considered commendable is starkly portrayed. By the time Rimbaud's and Verlaine's romance is portrayed, all of their destructive lusting seems like so much selfish pining on the part of two talented momma's boys from opposite ends of the spectrum. This fuels the novel's main flaw, creating a tedious read for anyone not sympathetic to two talented men who seem to have no shortage of self pity even as they scorn and phsyically harm the women in their lives.

The novel's prose is intoxicating at times, however, with scenes taking us through the pathetic horror of a veal calf goring its tongue on a nail out of boredom, to blisteing high adventure, and passionate eroticism on the African desert. The first sexual encounter between Rimbaud and Verlaine punctures the page with florid passion, wrestling, and finishing with the breathless abandon even seasoned romance writers strive for. The unflinching departure from romance that this novel takes forces one to examine further the works of Rimbaud and Verlaine, and the lives, and relationships formed and destroyed to fuel the creation of their poetic masterpieces. It forces one to look at the faces of the women scarred by the creation of these works, and then one is left to wonder at the human price of high art.

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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Book Review: The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov

The Master and MargaritaThe Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"There is not a single Eastern religion, where an immaculate virgin does not...bring forth a god into this world. And the Christians, displaying no originality whatsoever, followed the same pattern when they created their Jesus, who in fact, never existed at all."

These are the words of Berlioz to Bezdomny in the opening paragraphs of Mikhail Bulgakov's "The Master and Margarita". It's deceptively simple, words of cold rationalism that could begin any number of novels or textbooks set to showcase the the superiority of atheism, and to point out the ridiculousness of faith. And indeed it seems that way at the start, as Berlioz is meeting Bezdomny in a public park to discuss his displeasure at Bezdomny's draft of an anti-religous poem commissioned to be written on Jesus Christ. Bezdomny has treated Jesus as a real historical, albeit humanly flawed figure, in the poem, and Berlioz is determined to set the record straight--there was never any Jesus.

Enter Satan.

Now one would expect Satan to be someone reasonably satisfied with a 1920's Soviet Russia that does not believe in or accept anyone believing in God. The lack of belief deprives not only God of attentions, however, but it deprives Satan as well. Now, what could possibly happen to a city of Athiests when Satan pays a visit?

Regardless of one's personal beliefs about religion and reason there is a wicked glee one takes in the havoc wreaked upon the steadfastly reasonable and orderly 1920's Moscow. Apartments are trashed, a theater in disarray, the insane asylum begins to fill up, as the devil in the guise of a dark stranger named Woland, and his minions--a demon, a naked witch, and Behemoth, (quite possibly the coolest feline character in literary history) march through town. Surreal imagery, shocking sudden violence, biting satire, and even slapstick, fill these portions of the novel, never slowing down, never letting you go.

This isn't the only storyline, however, we are introduced to the tender romance between the title characters. The broken, addle-brained Master and the fiercely devoted Margarita who fears not even the furthest depths of Hell if it would bring her lover back to her. We are also dropped into Bulgakov's novel within a novel, a stark, frank take upon the death of Jesus Christ and the torment of Pontius Pilate.

This is a novel that left me breathless and shaky upon the finish. My mind reeled with the philisophical and spiritual debate tangled in the words, and I found myself laughing at some of the more comic imagery in it. What an iconic novel, what a delight to read, I heartily recommend everyone to enrich their lives and pick up a copy of The Master and Margarita today!

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Friday, September 16, 2011

Mothy Mae by Cee Martinez

New flash fiction has been posted.

Mothy Mae 

A story about the unexpected consequences of ostracism and bullying.

Mouseprose is a fledgling story forum. They accept stories in a great many genres and have already posted quite a few itneresting ones.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Damned by Chuck Palahniuk

DamnedDamned by Chuck Palahniuk
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Keep exercising, taking your vitamins, and recycling. If you're lucky, you'll never die. Otherwise, don't swear, honk your horn excessively, or pee in swimming pools; accept Christ as your savior and you may just keep yourself out of Hell. This is the hard lesson pre-adolescent little Madison Spencer learns after improbably overdosing on marijuana in a hotel room while watching her celebrity mother present an Oscar on television. Now trapped in a greasy cell, watching demons devour the flesh of the screaming damned, Madison finds herself with an eternity of torment before her with which to reflect upon her short life.

The novel, told through Madison's voice, reads with all the authentic vinegar of an intelligent young girl who, lacking in prom queen good looks, has decided to define herself with intelligence and wit. She marches through Palahniuk's vision of hell, past waterfalls of human bodily excretions, past endless loops of "The English Patient", with all the stubborn innocence of a world weary child.

Anyone familiar with Dante or Chaucer, or even the purgatory of the wonderful film "Wrist Cutters: A Love Story", will feel right at home with this Hell which basically just serves as the backdrop for a story that is the bastard child of Judy Blume and John Hughes after an acid trip bender at the Westboro Church. The story is very meta, with constant references to its own similarities to "The Breakfast Club" and Judy Blume novels, and the novelty of that wears off pretty quickly. The reader is unfortunately left with a plot and collection of characters--the prom queen, the jock, the dweeb, the rebel--that veers into predictability. You know at the get-go that seemingly shallow character will rise to the occasion, and seemingly callous ones will show heart when the story asks for it. You know that this is a standard coming of age plot that will take the heroine on a quest of self discovery and purpose.

R-rated violence and a graphic oral sex scene would make me quite an irresponsible person to recommend this to older teens--but I'm going to do it anyway. In many ways, the prose and structure of this book is a classic young adult novel with valuable lessons about family and self esteem put across more honestly than a lot of current YA best sellers.

This novel could really resonate amongst disaffected teens in this convoluted modern world of short attention spans, apathy, cruelty, and terrorism. A girl could do worse for role models than the doggedly optimistic Madison Spencer who becomes consumed with a plan to meet and charm Satan. If one is stuck in hell, then one must make the most of it right? It couldn't be so bad to be a minion of the Dark Lord rather than an ant under his foot... erm... cloven hoof?

I really enjoyed the complex relationship Palahniuk creates between Madison and her Brangelina-inspired parents. The parents could have easily been relegated to one dimensional caricatures, the scapegoat for an adolescent "no one loves me" whine-fest. Her parents both neglect and over-nurture Madison in shockingly extreme ways, but they are not evil...they're just liberal, and Madison is not bitter and hateful to them over it, she's just rather resigned to their flaws. There is even a bittersweet affection in the way she reflects upon her mother's uneven, self absorbed lifestyle, and her father's dim witted affections.

The novel is epic in scope, traversing the scorching open wastelands of hell where big name demons roam ravenous, to the clerical offices where the files and appeal of the damned are kept and conveniently lost. Of course Halloween is honored here, with the damned allowed one night amongst the living. It's the best time to collect chocolate bars--the most valuable currency in Hell. Even demons have a sweet tooth.

Hell fast loses it's shock and terror through the eyes of Madison Spencer, and as the novel picks up speed so does the fun. It's a dangerously seductive premise, because if spending time in Hell meant becoming the best friend of this plucky heroine, then it doesn't seem like such a bad prospect after all.

My thanks to Doubleday Publishing for the advance reader copy. :)

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Monday, September 5, 2011

A Book Courtesy of My Friendly Neighborhood Specter Magazine...

Sally HemingsSally Hemings by Barbara Chase Riboud
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

July 4th of this year found me seperated from fireworks and backyard barbecue, alone and in my livingroom with the laptop, and a History Channel marathon of The American Revolution. While running wild on Twitter and Facebook, I got to know better the editor of the brilliant new ezine, Specter Magazine, a Mr. Thomas D. DeMary II. I don't recall the exact details of the twit-conversation any longer, but the end result was that he had to pony up and buy me a book of my choosing off

Seeing as it was July 4th, I went Founding Father themed, and chose a title related to Thomas Jefferson. A paperback novel by Barbara Chase Riboud about the controversial enslaved mistress of Mr. Jefferson, Sally Hemings.

I've always been fascinated by Sally Hemings, the young one quarter African slave-girl who became the 15 year old mistress of Thomas Jefferson while he was stationed in Paris--Sally serving his daughters Martha, and Maria. She was the half-sister of Jefferson's dead wife Martha Wayles, and by all spoken accounts (for no portrait of Sally Hemings is known to survive)a beautiful young woman and the spitting image of her half sister. The fact that she was the aunt of the girls she was slave to, half sister to the dead Mistres of Monticello, and bound concubine of Thomas Jefferson whether she liked it or not seemed to sum up to me the epitome of slavery's absurdity.

The legend of the Hemings scandal, a huge story at the time Jefferson served as President of the United States, and chronicled by her own son Eston Hemings in an autobiography, faded over the decades. Covered in dust and the eventual sainting of Jefferson into a flawless man of marble.

This novel, I was pleasantly surprised to find, meticulously researched and wonderfully written, chips away the marble and granite of the beloved Thomas Jefferson, and breathes life into the breast of a slave girl who had only previously been immortalized in rude poems and brushed aside as a figment of legend.

The novel opens with a census taker in 1830 Virginia meeting an aged but still beautiful Sally Hemings, a freewoman living near the grounds of Monticello with two of her sons by Jefferson. The book almost lost me at the gate when the paragraphs breathlessly worship at the altar of Sally's "white" beauty. Great emphasis is devoted to her unlined skin, though she is past 50, her ivory complexion, her ebony hair and golden eyes that glow like a gemstone. Descriptive passages like this can sometimes leave me cold, as if to say the only woman worth writing about is one that never ages and is impossibly beautiful. I was afraid that this novel would go the way of a lurid romantic bodice ripper.

Sticking with it, however, paid off beautifully. Very swiftly Chase-Riboud takes the story of the infatuated census taker and the ageless Sally and smashes them together with a hard unflinching look of the the subject of slavery, race despite skin color, and Sally's complete embracing of her own identity as a woman of African heritage. Sally is an ageless doll at the opening, but that impossible beauty is quickly stripped away, as she begins to shed the skin of her emotional enslavement to the memory of Thomas Jefferson and Monticello.

Told from a variety of viewpoints, but mostly through Sally's, the novel jumps back and forth in time, and with great skill creates a Sally Hemings that is full blooded and real. One feels great sympathy for the fifteen year old Sally in Paris, beautiful and naive, and overcome with the love that Jefferson offers. Freedom from slavery in Paris is within her grasp, but adolescent infatuation is a stronger force that binds her to Jefferson and condemns her to a lifetime of slavery returned to Virginia. At no point is she a helpless, dim-witted concubine mistress as popular tales of the time had her. She is an intelligent, assertive, graceful woman who runs Monticello, and deftly dodges the venom sent her way by Jefferson's oldest daughter Martha.

Jefferson is shown as both the intelligent, innovative man he is famous for being, but his flaws are also not skimmed over. His inability to spend or save money properly, the hypocrisy of his idea of a free America but yet allowing slavery to fester and spread, and his selfishness in binding Sally Hemings and her children to him without ever giving them anything more than his curt acknowledgment.

This book is an important one, controversial at the time for its unflinching look at slavery, race relations, and the fallibility of a Founding Father.

Read the modern paperback edition of this book as it has an afterword by the author in it, detailing the pains she took in research, and the pain she endured upon publication of the book for being an African American woman who would dare pull back the curtain on the boudoir of an American Icon.


And I highly recommend everyone go and check out Specter Magazine at

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Saturday, August 20, 2011

Link Tweak: Goats Eat Moths

This is an updating of the link for my flash fiction "Goats Eat Moths" which appeared in Issue 1 of Lightning Flash Magazine.

Goats Eat Moths A flash horror about a curious shutter-bug who loves taking photographs inside abandoned houses.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Twit-lit! It's all the rage so get on board!

One of my tweetie sized poems will be included in the new anthology edited by Joanne Merriman and due in December. 140 and Counting will feature over 100 twitter sized poems by over 100 authors. The anthology will be available for the twitter sized price of 5 dollars. You can ensure your copy by preordering at the Kickstarter page to order: 140 and Counting So do yourself a treat and order! :)

Monday, July 25, 2011

Book Review: The Spy Edition

The Official CIA Manual of Trickery and DeceptionThe Official CIA Manual of Trickery and Deception by H Keith Melton

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In terms of entertainment, the very lengthy introduction in this book is better than the declassified MKULTRA era manuscript it headlines. Many interesting details about the CIA during the MKULTRA years are discussed, including strange ones, such as the CIA use of prostitutes to lure Johns into motel rooms under surveillence so agents could record the Johns' reaction to various mind altering drugs like LSD. The introduction alone is a must-read for any spy, CIA, or conspiracy geek. Although, a short internet search on the subject of MKULTRA would reveal a far more sinister, and disturbing look into the CIA than this book would ever hint at.

That's the main trouble with this book. I didn't think it could be at all possible to sanitize and neuter the very idea of the MKULTRA project, which included disturbing studies of brainwashing on unwilling and unwitting subjects, some experimented on in mental hospitals, and taken from their own families. This book has done just that. By touting the glaring "declassfied" badge on its front cover, and breathlessly declaring how the manuscript within was one of the very few to escape the massive destruction of documents that almost erased the MKULTRA project, one is drawn easily into reading it with a racing pulse and shaking hands.

The declassified manuscript is a how-to manual commissioned by the CIA from a successful and well written magician named John Mullholland. In sterile courier font, and as clearly as it possibly can, it painstakingly covers various sleight of hand tricks an undercover agent can do to pass along notes, steal small objects, and drug unsuspecting enemies drinks. They're pretty fun ideas for a party trick nowadays, or a pretty terrifying how-to manual on how to slip a gal a roofie. There is even a special section for the ladies! A giggle or two was spent on reading the passages Mullholland pens, almost apologetic in noting that a female agent can probably go undetected easier than a man because a man won't expect much from a woman anyway. At least try to tackle those passages with a bit of humor and you should get through it.

All in all, I found this an enjoyable read, not particularly a great read, and I was very disappointed in having such a bland payoff for all the hype. I am a sucker for books that reflect the flavor of their times, however, and in fact, this was not much of a different read than say, a good manners manual from the 1930's.

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Friday, July 1, 2011

Black Narcissus

Black NarcissusBlack Narcissus by Rumer Godden

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A group of nuns, led by stubborn Irish born Sister Clodagh are assigned to a remote estate in the Himalayas to start a convent, run a school, and an infirmary for the local villagers. It's a monumental task that Sister Clodagh feels tentatively up to, and one already abandoned by priests who failed at a similar endeavor. All the basic elements for plot tension are here, personality clashes between the nuns, culture shock, loss of faith, and the ever needling presence of the only white man in the area, a handsome alcoholic handyman named Mr. Dean.

The book succeeds the most in the searingly realistic portrayals of the women and their differences. They are sworn to a life of chastity and poverty before God, but they are after all, just women. Godden writes with a keen eye, and you feel the frustrations and elations of each of these women as they fail and succeed at the various impossible tasks set before them. Mr. Dean is also a well written character, a classic charming drunk who despises the very presence of these women in his world, while at the same time startling with his concern and respect for them.

The vivid descriptions of the flowers, mountains, the sky, the weather, the smells and food, are very well done and the estate and the country do indeed become their own character, a cruel and beautiful creature that nurses the natives to her breast just as surely as she wears the nuns down one by one.

My biggest complaint about the book, although considering the context of the time it was written perhaps it was unavoidable, is that the natives in the novel are painted over with one brown brush that stamps each and every one of them with the phrase "ignorant savage". The nuns either condescend to them, adopting them like little pets, or they despise them as formless creatures. At one point, a character surprises herself when she realizes that she can start telling them apart. Even Mr. Dean, the character who can speak their language and is basically living with them day in and out, brushes them aside as overgrown children that should be treated as such.

The housekeeper, Ayah, is well written, a flinty, no-nonsense native woman who begrudginly welcomes the nuns to the estate and becomes the balance between the two cultures. The other non-white characters Kanchi and General Dilip are both written as ditzy, shallow, spoiled youths who do nothing more than infuriate and confound the nuns.

There's a lot to be said for the restraint in this novel. Any modern hand with these basic plot elements could have easily written something filled with sudden violence and graphic sex, or bent over low to create a steamy bodice ripper. There is sensuality in this novel, there is erotic longing, jealousy, violence, but everything happens in its own time and without gratuitousness.

I do recommend this read to anyone wanting to peek into a world one wouldn't otherwise have known existed.

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Sunday, June 26, 2011

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire HunterAbraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Fiendishly clever read!

This novel, by the author of the mother of all mash-up novels, "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies", really takes history for a gothic spin with Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

With surpisingly meticulous care for historical detail, Mr. Grahame-Smith has presented a biographical portrait of Abraham Lincoln, sometimes in his own words, that reads almost like a highschool history textbook. In many ways it's a book report on one of America's most beloved presidents told through an all night cram session laced with too much junk food, energy drinks, and with a particularly bloody Hammer Films production screaming in the background.

Abraham Lincoln the character, comes out every much as honest, and hard working as the Abe Lincoln we know and love, the novel tracing his life through childhood (when he loses his mother to a vampire) and to that tragic night at Fords Theater (where there are also vampires.) Any Lincoln enthusiast will find a lot to snicker about seeing familiar faces, and places turned upside down and ripped at the seams with a gothic rewrite. Any horror fan will be thoroughly satiated by the buckets of blood and limbs that splatter and roll across the pages. (Well we can't let Mr. Lincoln's famous axe-wielding prowess go to waste now can we?)

The vampires in this novel are not the romantic, dazzling, self hating boy toys that have become the trend these days, but are the narcissistic, cruel, black eyed blood-suckers of the sort Christoper Lee made famous. They are creatures we root to see hunted down and slain.

It is quite easy to get caught up in the blood hunt in this novel as well. For the backdrop is the slave-holding South of pre-Civil War America, an America where vampires rule the Antebellum plantations and farm slaves as cattle. There are moments of cruelty against slaves so shocking that it pours salt in the wound of America's history, hammering into the casual reader who would rather not think deeply about that time just how repugnant and unforgivable a crime slavery was.

And that's what really makes this novel rock. The politics and events leading up to the civil war, from the effete slave owners who rationalize the dehumanizing of an entire race, to the South Carolina congressman who beat his abolitionist rival near to death as congress was coming to session, are clearly laid out. The frustrations of the war, a loss at Bull Run, McClellan's unwillingness to move, are not glossed over, and the addition of an army of vampire Confederates perhaps makes us understand a little the fear actual Union soldiers felt upon hearing the Rebel Yell.

I also enjoyed Grahame-Smith's sensitive portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln. Too often Mary is treated as a clownish stereotype, something to be pitied and despised just as Edward Stanton did when he pulled her from the body of her dying husband. Here she is portrayed as the clever, vivacious young girl that first caught Abraham Lincoln's eye, and her descent into crippling depression is shown with surprising tenderness.

Apparently the movie rights for this book have been sold, a film to be produces by Tim Burton. It certainly is a story ripe for the big screen, and as long as Johnny Depp is not cast as Lincoln (all apologies to Mr. Depp who is brilliant), I think this could turn out quite good. In the meantime, don't hesitate to get your hands on this book, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I!

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Monday, June 13, 2011

Driftless by David Rhodes

DriftlessDriftless by David Rhodes

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This novel is really a collection of short stories about a group of people living in a rural Wisconsin town called "Words". One of the major characters, and to me, one of the most likeable, is a farmer named July Montgomery who lives a lonely life after tragedy took his wife from him, but he fills that gap by becoming something of a touchstone to his neighbors. Apparently, this character has appeared in the author's previous books, written decades ago, quite acclaimed and, I'm afraid I haven't read those.

The backdrop of this book is a dying town, it is the Wisconsin weather--sulky summer heat or bitter blizzards, it is the idea of nature awakening, ready to take back the land from the inhabitants, a lone mountain lion prowling the area. The story begins slowly enough, a sighting of the mountain lion, the humdrum existances of a woman pastor, spinster sisters living as caregiver and cripple, married farmers who are living stale on their dairy farm, an alcoholic singer yearning for someone to notice her music.

In fact, the book began so slowly that I couldn't stop yawning. I had that weird feeling I sometimes get when watching a very well done independant film, kind of bored but also still wondering where these characters are going to end up. The dialogue got a bit stilted and clunky at times, the prose could overflow excessively in describing a moment, fervantly hammering at you that a character was FEELING something and we all had to FEEL it with them. At moments like those I felt as if someone was talking louder and louder in my face in an effort to get me to understand their foreign tongue.

The characters, however, unfolded quite nicely, blossoming with their own stories that were quite far-fetched at times, stretching all sorts of believability and bringing a sense of magic and miracle to a dusty old piece of Americana. Some characters experience magical solutions to their problems, fall into a nest of new ones, and other characters suffer tragedy or misfortune. There are clashes with big corporations, militia groups, there are dogfights, miracles, children in danger, family secrets, all events that intertwine the characters around each other, creating a fraying rope to dangle in the center of Words, Wisconsin.

I did thoroughly enjoy this novel by the end of it and was glad that I was patient enough to stick with it. I highly recommend this to anyone who wants to cut their teeth in it.

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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

"The Help" by Kathryn Stockett

The HelpThe Help by Kathryn Stockett

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of the most exhilirating books I've ever read!

The NPR blurb on the cover compares it to "To Kill a Mockingbird", and even the book itself mentions it by name several times throughout, so you already know where this one is reaching. These, are not the same books, of course, and although both are about the unjust, and oftentimes violent line drawn between whites and blacks in the Old South, neither of them will ever provide any new information to the African Americans who suffered from slavery to Jim Crow, but they will always be an eye opener to everyone else. If the initial message of "To Kill a Mockingbird" has long since been taken for granted by scores of teenagers and college students who enjoy it as required reading, sitting safe within the confines of "this is a time no longer with us", "The Help" certainly has a chance to grab them by the wrist and pull them off the beach chair they're lounging in. It is one of those books that screams "wake up call", and successfully does so without falling into the trap of gratuitous violence, cartoonish stereotypes, and race-baiting.

The novel centers on the lives of three women in 1960's Jackson, Mississippi, two Housekeepers-Aibilene and Minny, and on Skeeter Phelan, the gangly socialite, fresh from college and itching to make her mark on the literary world rather than submit to her mother's dreams of husband hunting and babies. Aibilene and Minny are written as three dimensional women, they are tired, and not always long suffering, working for white families their entire lives and about at the breaking point with the cold dismissal, and sometimes outright cruelty they've endured from employers.

Aibilene's specialty is raising white children, babies she calls her own, babies that invariably break her heart when they realize and accept the line between white and black, but she can never stop herself from loving them.

Minny is a vibrant, fierce woman, she has noisy children and an abusive alcoholic husband waiting for her at home, and a chronic inability to keep her temper when aggravated by any one of the white employers she's been fired from.

Aibilene and Minny have a mutual enemy, Skeeter Phelan's best friend, an obsessively controlling tyrant named Hilly Holbrook.

The entire novel is a galaxy circling Hilly Holbrook, a woman so controlling, racist, and vile that the fact she's a genuinely loving, and nurturing mother is obscenely disarming. Hilly is the social leader, she runs card clubs, ladies clubs, and collects money for starving children in Africa while gleefully tormenting the lives of the "nigra maids" of Jackson, Mississippi. She is so obviously brutal, but yet, one recognizes in her so clearly the voice, and person of that ONE member of every group that everyone inexplicably tolerates.

Why do we put up with, and crave the approval of people like Hilly Holbrook? The novel's white lead, Skeeter Phelan is very, very slow to come to any realization of this question, so much so, that it does become frustating she would persist in calling this woman her best friend.

The backdrop weaves in references to Martin Luther King, The Freedom Riders, the Kennedy Administration, and throughout the entire story lies the ever present threat of what would happen to the three main characters should their ultimate collaboration on an explosive tell-all about white and black relations in Jackson, Mississippi become exposed.

You will find yourself worrying alongside these women, jumping when they do at suspicious knocks on the doors and cars in the driveway, laughing alongside them whenever the little things in life like baking a caramel cake or potty training a toddler go well, or even pumping your fist at times.

Highly engrossing, well written, fast paced and without even one page of lag, "The Help" is definately one of THE books of the year.

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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Lunching in Graveyards is hee-larious!

Lunch Sacks and Tombstones

Lucy Hathaway should probably think long and hard about the boy of her dreams and their lunch dates at the cemetary.

With Painted Words is a charming, and creative web-zine with a new picture prompt each month.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

In ur undergrounds, lurking in ur anthologeez!

Literary Lab's second anothology, Notes from the Underground is up for sale right now, and I am fortunate enough to be included. The contest for this anthology was pretty cunning. They first had to accept your five page application, which was a sample of your writing, any kind of writing. After that, you were given 10 pages to write whatever the hell you pleased.

It was a strange experience. I had the story I wanted in my mind, I ran over it, nipped at it, tugged it around, and stared at it, completely in awe of the fact that it was accepted no matter what. It really forced me to come up with what I hoped was the best story I could tell. The story "Little Shark, Little Shark" is only available in this anthology.

There are quite a few awesome stories in it though. It really is an amazing collection. It gives you a snapshot of the true personality of each writer, of the rawness that makes em tick. Do yourself a favor a buy a copy of this gorgeous book, or if you prefer, you can buy it on Kindle.

All proceeds from this book go to theWriter's Assistance Emergency Fund Writer's Assistance Emergency Fund.

Amazon Print Edition

Kindle Edition

Createspace Edition <----preferred by Literary Lab as more money will go to charity here.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

A Long List of Short Deadlies

I am very fortunate to have three of my stories, "The Field", "The Hanged Man", and "Alone in December" appear in Short, Fast, and Deadly's best of 2010 Anthology "Deadlier Than Thou".

You can purchase it here.

There are dozens of stories included in it that are so sharp and pointy you'll need to wear protective glasses. Have a go! Take a chance! Buy it! (There is also a free downloadable edition of it available as well if you must have things for free.)

Although "The Field" and "The Hanged Man" are reprints from issues 39 and 49 of the e-zine, "Alone in December" can only be found in the anthology.

Go on, treat yourself, do me proud! :D

My last three stories to apper on Short, Fast, and Deadly are:

The Hanged Man

A story told through painted canvases.

Short, Fast, and Deadly--Issue 49--(Word) Art & Lies

My Year on a Postcard

Like "Snakes on a Plane" the title pretty much says it.

Short, Fast, and Deadly--Issue 53--The Year in Review

Suicide Programming

Nightmares and reality mix in this story about fighting higher powers.

Short, Fast, and Deadly--Issue 55--Revolution Revelation

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Bloggy Book Club Meetup!!!!! Between the Bridge and the River

Oh, so late! Forgive me. What started out as a few mercy delays, for everyone to finish up reading turned into me catching the nastiest flu in the history of ever and having to delay the meetup and review even longer. On the plus side, I hope those who wouldn't have otherwise been able to finish the book were able to finish the book!

So to the review!

One of the things I love the most about this novel is the novelty of seeing America through a foreignor's eyes. Mr. Craig Ferguson since the writing of the novel has become an American citizen and is currently in that new-American state of patriotic fervor that makes me a natural born American feel a bit unappreciative of my homeland. What amuses me very much is the way he takes a good hard look at some of the strangest things about America and Americans, and he doesn't come down acidly and condescending upon it, but instead, he sees something unique and worthwhile about it.

His characters all fascinate me. They are so horribly flawed, and there is a fussy selfishness about a few of them at the least, and a horrifying decay about the worst of them. He doesn't shy away from anything about them.

Did anyone have a favorite character or storyline? Was there a storyline or character who couldn't be stomached? Seeing as Mr. Ferguson is a highschool dropout who has pretty much completed his education by filling in his knowledge gaps by sitting in a library or experiencing things himself, how did his writing style and story structure seem to you? (I kind of root for him there because I am also a school dropout who feverishly tries to compensate for my gaps in knowledge by learning about anything I can on my own.) Was there a storyline that just busted reality a bit tooo much for you or did you find yourself just going along with it. (Believe me, in some parts of America, church chanting and snake twirling is alive and well. Heh.)

Well, I hope everyone had fun and I can't wait to read comments!

How did everyone's holidays go? :D