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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