In addition to the usual things (family, friends, good health, internet connectivity) I’m thankful for all of you, who read what I write, and offer support, comments and critiques. You guys are, as always, the best!
I’m also extra-thankful because so many of my readers are authors as well, and through this blog and Twitter, I’ve discovered so many wonderful and immensely-talented writers. And, today in particular, it seems only right that I should share the good things I’ve been fortunate enough to read. So go check out my indie book review list, and see if you find something that catches your fancy.
And remember, if you do find a book you like, tell other people about it. One of the greatest hidden benefits of reading is the joy of getting to tell a friend about a book you’ve discovered that you just know they’re going to love.
A very happy Thanksgiving, to all those celebrating. To those not celebrating, have a very happy November 28th. I’m off to get some pumpkin pie.
This book is a science fiction coming-of-age tale that tells the story of Robbin Haysus Nikalishin, who from an early age dreams of voyaging to the stars. Set in the 2700s, on an Earth that has been remade after a series of catastrophic wars. A new government has arisen, as well as a new set of moral precepts designed to reconcile as well as supersede the core tenets of the old religions.
Additionally, the passage of time has gradually changed the spellings and phrasings of the English language—itself now called “Inge.” So, the United States of America has become Midammerik, India has become Ind, and so on. The spellings are clever—different enough to convey that the world has changed, but similar enough that the reader knows what’s what.
Cleverly, the book is framed as an official biography written to commemorate Nikalishin, but with the twist that the notes at the beginning suggest the officials who commissioned it are less than pleased with how the author has chosen to depict the subject.
Nikalishin’s life is driven by his determination and unrelenting desire to be a spaceship captain. He studies physics from some of the best professors in the world, and also attends a military academy, all in order to prepare himself for the job of starship captain. He and his good friend Kolm MaGilligoody rise swiftly through the ranks, ultimately joining an experimental program known as SkyPiercer.
Nikalishin’s other interests besides space travel include birdwatching and, of course, sex. He has many romantic encounters with various women he meets throughout his remarkable rise to worldwide fame as a daring space explorer. Some of the relationships last, some don’t, but all of them influence him in one way or another. The romance sub-plots are well done and always are both integral to the plot and right for the characters.
Now, make no mistake, while the book has strong characters and a great plot, it’s not simply an epic space opera. That is, it’s not one of these affairs where space travel is taken as an unexplained fact-of-life to be explained by hand-waving. This is a “hard” science fiction book, and there is plenty of in-depth discussion about the quantum physics involved with making interstellar jumps. But it never feels heavy-handed or dry; indeed, the discussions about physics punctuated by Nikalishin arguing with his professors are quite enjoyable.
That’s the thing that dazzled me most: how alive and organic the whole world of the book feels. It would have been so easy to make it the literary equivalent of a video game on rails: Robbin Nikalishin meets character X who gives him Y so he can advance to the next stage and ultimately be a space hero.
But Taylor didn’t take the easy way. She did the hard, meticulous work of world-building and fleshing out all the supporting characters. I’m in awe of how every character, from Nikalishin’s mother to his best friend to his lovers and even down to the ship’s janitor, are fully-realized and well-described. This isn’t a book, it’s a whole universe rendered in prose.
Oh, and I haven’t even touched on how much I love the depiction of religion. Kolm and his family follow a strain of religion clearly descended from Irish Catholicism. They don’t even fully understand some of the meaning of the symbols and terms of the rituals, but they follow them even so, and it brings them spiritual comfort. I loved the way this was handled—neither stridently preachy nor cloyingly condescending; it felt real.
That’s right, two typos in the whole thing. I don’t have a word count for this book, but I know Amazonestimates the length at 510 pages. My longest book is 308 pages, and it was about 67,000 words, so approximately 217 words per page. If that’s the same here, that means Taylor wrote about 110,670 words, self-edited, and came out with only two minor errors.
That’s insanely good. In the novel, the characters have to make precise calculations, correct down to like the millionth decimal place, before attempting an interstellar jump, or they risk disaster. Taylor obviously has a knack for care and precision that makes her fit to serve aboard one of her own starships!
If you can’t tell already, I absolutely loved this book and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Taylor built a fascinating world, populated it with rich, believable characters, and told a brilliantly paced story about them. This is sci-fi at its best.
Now, I want to talk a little bit about something somewhat spoiler-y. It’s not giving away too much, as it concerns something that happens less than a quarter of the way into the book, but it has ramifications for the rest of the story. Feel free to skip this if you want to go in completely unspoiled.
Nikalishin’s parents divorce when he is a young boy after his father physically abuses him and his mother, Sterling. Sterling raises her son on her own, and makes every effort to see that he achieves his dream of becoming a starship captain.
At some point, in his late teens, Robbin learns that Sterling has been working as an escort for wealthy men in order to pay for her son to attend the schools and take the classes he needs. Robbin is horrified by this revelation, and ever afterward, his relationship with his mother becomes strained. He feels, somehow, that everything he achieves and his relationship with her are irrevocably tainted. They have a falling out, and later a semi-reconciliation, but he can never quite achieve a healthy relationship with her, even when he leaves to risk his life on dangerous space missions.
This made me dislike Robbin. He seemed quite ungrateful towards his mother, after everything she’d done for him. He even, for lack of a better term, slut-shames her at one point, which is ludicrous given that he himself seemingly sleeps with every other woman he meets. (More than one character calls him out on his hypocrisy, but he doesn’t seem to take it to heart.)
In a way, his initial feelings are kind of understandable. We get it, Robbin; you had to think about your mother sleeping with someone, and it grossed you out. But after that moment of revulsion, an adult should realize that parents are just people, and that these are the kinds of situations that happen in life, and then get past it. After all, as Sterling repeatedly tells her son, she did it for him.
Even as a world-renowned heroic starship captain, Robbin Nikalishin really is profoundly childish in many ways. He has extremely limited ability to understand the feelings of women. He’s stunned to discover one of his acquaintances is a lesbian. He doesn’t mind it, per se, he just acts like the concept is completely new to him.
He also has an incredibly bad temper. He is sometimes justified, but even then, he tends to explode in rage at the slightest provocation. Admittedly, the primary antagonist, who does not appear until relatively late in the book, is quite infuriating. But Capt. Nikalishin gets bent out of shape when someone so much as mispronounces his surname. I was rooting for him, but there were still times when I wanted to sock him right in the belly of his beloved military uniform and tell him to grow the hell up.
To be clear, none of this is a complaint about the writing. Quite the opposite, in fact. It’s a credit to Taylor that she was able to craft such a complete character, that a reader could both cheer on and simultaneously find extremely irritating. Too many writers make their heroes one-dimensional cardboard cut-outs, or worse, heroes with one painfully obvious flaw tacked-on just to make them Not Perfect. Capt. Nikalishin is a flawed hero, and better still, he’s flawed in the way that real heroic figures often are. Think about the philosopher Carlyle and his so-called “great men,” who often were impulsive, emotional and obsessed with crafting their own image as flawless paragons. Nikalishin is what I suspect a real-life “great man” is like—which is to say, quite maddening to know personally.
And of course, I should stress that this is only part one of the series. The book ends with an absolutely epic cliffhanger, and I’m eagerly looking forward to finding out how things develop from here.
It’s funny: even though I like writing sci-fi adventures, most of the indie books I’ve reviewed have not been in that genre. I haven’t consciously avoided them; that’s just how it’s worked out. Audrey Driscoll recommended this to me, and I’m so grateful that she did. It was fun to read a book in roughly the same genre as I primarily write—especially one as marvelous as this one. I’m guessing that if you enjoyed my novel The Directorate, you are very likely going to love this book. It’s a brilliantly thought-out and well-executed science-fiction epic.
As one indie sci-fi author to another: Ms. Taylor, my hat’s off to you. This is a really great novel, and for me, it ranks right up there with the best by the likes of Asimov, Clarke, and the other All-Time Greats of science fiction.
Galaxy of Fear was a series of horror-themed Star Wars books for children published in the late ‘90s. I was a huge Star Wars fan as a kid, so as you can imagine, I gobbled them up. I’m not sure if these were the first horror books I ever read, but they were the first ones I remember reading, so they always have a special place in my heart.
The books follow the adventures of Tash and Zak Arranda, two children orphaned after the destruction of the planet Alderaan, now under the care of their “uncle”—a scientist named Hoole, who is a member of a species of shape-shifters known as Shi’idos.
This book is told from Tash’s perspective. She, Zak and Hoole crash-land on a planet called D’vouran, after it mysteriously pulls them out of hyperspace. The population of the planet is friendly enough, although Tash has the canonical “bad feeling” about it. She encounters a mad wandering beggar who warns her about people disappearing. In the fine tradition of Zadok Allen from The Shadow over Innsmouth, he turns out to be on to something with his dire warnings.
I’m going to try not to spoil these books, even though they are over twenty years old and in many cases, kind of give away what the horror is going to be by their titles, covers, etc. Let’s just say the name of the planet is significant. And, since I’m summarizing the series, I have no choice but spoil the fact that Tash, Zak and Hoole ultimately survive, thanks to an assist from the heroes of the original trilogy, which leads us into more horror hijinks with…
City of the Dead
This one is told from Zak’s perspective. He is haunted by a recurring nightmare of the corpses of his late parents tapping at his window. The trio is dropped off on a planet reassuringly named “Necropolis.” Zak befriends another boy who lives on the planet, who tells him about the supposed curse of Sycorax, a witch who lived there long ago, and a dare that involves entering a cemetery at night. Soon after, strange things begin happening, and Zak becomes convinced that the dead are returning from their graves.
This book is, by far, my favorite in the series. I love the setting; a whole morbid planet, gloomily obsessed with death. I love the eerie holographic cover. And I love the fact that my man Boba Fett gets to be the character-from-the-movies-who-saves-the-day-with-his-cameo-appearance this time.
All right, so I’m not doing great at not spoiling this, but I can’t help it! I will say that every book (for that matter, every chapter) ends with a cliffhanger that suggests all is not well. Often, this is not followed up on in the next book, and that’s clearly the case here. This has led me to develop my own completely preposterous fan theory regarding these books, but more on that later. For now, it’s on to…
The good news is, this book is told from Tash’s perspective. I like her better than Zak. The bad news is, the guest star character from the movies is Wedge Antilles. Wedge Antilles seems to be the character who gets shoehorned in whenever Expanded Universe writers need a rebel pilot, but can’t have Luke. I find him boring in all his appearances.
Also, the threat in this book is just not as scary as the first two. Arguably, a plague bio-weapon should be a more realistic concept, but then you see the cover, which basically has the Flemoid King on it, and you go, nah, actually it isn’t that realistic.
This book does get some points for establishing that it is not a coincidence that the Arrandas and Hoole keep getting drawn into these bizarre and horrifying situations, for introducing them to the overall antagonist of the plot arc, who has the awesome name of “Borborygmous Gog,” another Shi’ido who once worked with Uncle Hoole, and for introducing me to the word “ziggurat,” which is fun to say.
Still, I think this is one of the weaker books. Maybe things will get better in…
The Nightmare Machine
It’s back to Zak’s perspective for this one. Which actually works, because they go to Hologram Fun World, a sort of virtual reality amusement park. It somehow seems right for an immature boy to tell this story. The big attraction at Hologram Fun World is “The Nightmare Machine”—a V.R. chamber that shows you your worst fear. A sort of Orwellian Room 101 that you have to pay to enter. I’m surprised Disney hasn’t built one yet.
But—wouldn’t you know it!—something goes horribly wrong with the simulation, and it doesn’t end when it’s supposed to. And once again, we find the hidden hand of Gog working behind the scenes to torment Zak and Tash.
I love the concept here—the bending of reality itself is a great vehicle for horror. How can Zak ever really be sure he’s woken up? City of the Dead is still my favorite in this series, but this one has a really great concept. Also, the celebrity guest is Lando Calrissian. Gotta love Lando.
So, with the amusement park from hell behind us, we proceed to…
Ghost of the Jedi
This is back to Tash’s perspective, and Tash is obsessed with the Jedi. It’s kind of suggested she might be Force-sensitive. She’s been chatting with somebody on what basically amounts to an internet chat room.
Ok… let me pause and explain to you young people… a chat room was sort of like if you had a whole site that was just the comments section. A forum basically, before all of it got jazzed up and called “social media.”
Anyway, Tash’s internet friend, whom I’ll call Master Guccifer because that’s better than his actual handle, turns out not to be entirely on the level. Unfortunately, Tash only discovers this after agreeing to go to an abandoned space station which Master Guccifer has convinced her holds a lot of Jedi secrets.
Is it too much of a spoiler to say that Gog is, once again, pulling all the strings here? No, I don’t think it is. The first five books have all been part of the “Gog” arc—or maybe more accurately, the “Starscream” arc, because that’s the name of Gog’s project.
I do like this tale for two reasons: first, the atmosphere of the space station/library is pretty creepy, and second, because it actually teaches kids a valuable lesson: don’t trust what random weirdos you find on the internet are telling you, even if they claim to be well-read.
Oh, wait a minute. I just essentially told you not to trust me, didn’t I? Shoot.
Well, you have to at least stick with me to see where all this is going! After all, we’re about to finally unravel the mystery of Project Starscream in…
Army of Terror
The Arrandas and Hoole arrive on the planet Kiva, a desolate world, haunted by shadows—ghostly presences, ultimately revealed to be the victims of a failed project Gog had been working on.
Also on the planet, they find an adorable, cuddly creature which says “Eppon.” Deciding that he must be saying his name (like a pokémon) Tash takes Eppon as a sort of pet. Eppon is an adorable, cute little creature who seems like he couldn’t hurt a fly.
But Eppon grows. Particularly, when the rebels guarding him mysteriously die, he grows. Finally, it is revealed that he is Gog’s ultimate creation—Eppon is a mispronunciation of “weapon,” and he is meant to be a monster that will, I guess, go around killing people. It seems like a lot of trouble to go through when there are wild wampas running around Hoth that could do as well. I’m honestly not sure why the Empire bankrolled this project.
And there are more revelations in store! Uncle Hoole (whose first name is “Mammon”)was Gog’s colleague in the disastrous project that created the shadowy ghost-presences. The creatures have been seeking their revenge upon Hoole, but then realize it was actually Gog who destroyed their planet, and accordingly, decide to kill him instead.
Okay, I know I’ve poked a lot of fun at these books, and they aren’t really supposed to be taken seriously—they’re pulp sci-fi horror for kids, after all. I’m told they’re a knock-off of Goosebumps. Having not read Goosebumps, I wouldn’t know about that.
But all that being said, I like these ideas. I like that “Eppon” is how the little creature misunderstands his name. I like that he is ultimately shown to be as much a victim of Gog’s madness as much as anyone else is. And I love how Uncle Hoole has been seeking redemption for his role in the vast tragedy that destroyed the planet. (In a way, it’s a forerunner of the central theme of Knights of the Old Republic II, the greatest Star Wars story of them all, in which the destruction of Malachor V by the Mass Shadow Generator still haunts all the characters.)
The whole arc is at times silly, at times a bit groan-worthy, and definitely too filled with Original Trilogy characters wearing sandwich boards to remind us that yes, this is totally a Star Wars book. But for all that, it’s a satisfying story, with some scary concepts, and good characters. Yes, Zak is kind of one-dimensional, but Tash and Uncle Hoole are interesting, and even grow a bit over the series. And I didn’t even mention the dry, professorial droid DV-9, who serves as the children’scaretaker when Hoole is away. He’s less annoying than C-3P0, that’s for sure.
Now, because this is Star Wars, we can’t just quit while we’re ahead and be content with a nice satisfying story, and as a result, there are six more books after the “Gog “ or “Starscream” or whatever-you-want-to-call-it arc ended.
These books aren’t as good. Now it’s just the Arrandas and Hoole roaming around at random and somehow getting involved in more bizarre and horrific things—but this time there is no reason for it. Maybe it’s just me, but if the same three characters are going to keep having adventures, I like it to be for some discernible reason. Just having them keep happening to stumble into brain-transplant experiments orinfestations of billions of insects or whatever the hell Spore is doesn’t work for me.
Although to be fair, the cover of The Swarm is pretty awesome:
There are more cameos too, including Jabba the Hutt, Admiral Thrawn, Boba Fett (again), Darth Vader (again) Yoda, and Dash Rendar.
Remember what I said about Star Wars writers using Wedge Antilles as a poor man’s Luke? Well, Dash Rendar is the same thing for Han Solo. And I get it: we all like the idea of a roguish smuggler with a dark past. But Rendar never worked for me—he just screamed “We wanted to have this be Han Solo, but we can’t, so we made up this guy, who flies a similar ship, acts a similar way, and basically does all the same stuff as Han Solo would do.” I liked Shadows of the Empire—both the game and the book—but Dash Rendar was definitely a weak point. The part where Xizor tries to seduce Princess Leia was the highlight of the book, and the space battle at the end was the highlight of the game.
Anyway, what was I talking about? Oh, right—so the random weird stuff cycle of Galaxy of Fear; it isn’t as good. But there are a few interesting things, even so. In particular, book #11 Clones. I forget all the details now, but somehow or other, there’s this place churning out evil clones of people for some reason. For perspective, even Darth Vader has an evil clone. Think about that.
This is interesting given that only a few years later, George Lucas would make Attack of the Clones, where we learn that all the stormtroopers are clones. I realize that continuity isn’t a priority in this universe, but I would have thought Lucas would have at least bothered to tell whoever was in charge of content control, “Hey, I have it in mind to do something with clones in a future movie. Tell people not to use that in any spin-off stories.”
Oh, well. It’s Star Wars. If there’s one thing you can say unequivocally about Star Wars, it’s that none of it makes any sense whatsoever. At this point, it really has become a modern mythology, with various mangled versions that spring from the same set of ideas, but diverge in wildly contradictory ways. Future anthropologists may someday try to piece the whole mess together in an effort to understand the beliefs of 20th and 21st-century humans.
But while it may not have made sense, Galaxy of Fear was a lot of fun for an 8-year-old kid discovering he liked horror and sci-fi.
Now then, I promised you a totally preposterous fan theory. There is one way the second half of the series could be made to work; a way that would explain why all this stuff keeps happening to Zak and Tash, even after the defeat of Gog and everything else: what if Zak has been trapped in the Nightmare Machine the entire time?
This is a collection of ten short stories, many of which are inspired by myths, fairy-tales, folk-lore and poetry. Sort of like Angela Carter’s retellings of well-known stories, Spicer cleverly re-invents these classic tales, telling them in a new way or from a new perspective. All the stories are enjoyable and interesting. My favorites were the poignant “Stranger at the Crossroads,” and the delightful “An Unlikely Friendship.”
Because these are short stories, I don’t want to discuss them in detail because it may give too much away. Lydia Schoch’s review discusses the two tales I have mentioned above, and she’s much better at reviewing without spoiling than I am. I encourage reading her review—it was what first brought this book to my attention, and I’m glad, because it’s a very enjoyable read, especially for the autumn and winter months. If you enjoy subtle horror, fantasy or paranormal stories, this book is for you.
After reading this collection, I was eager to read more of Spicer’s work. And I also started reading her blog, which is a real delight—check it out; she has written tons of excellent posts on a wide variety of topics, including various writerly matters and book reviews.
When I was a kid, my dad would tell me stories while I would play on my swing-set. Most of his stories were funny, but I remember some were scary—I recall in particular one about a vampire that he told me at sunset one evening. Our house was across the street from a cemetery, and my dad took full advantage of this fact for his tale.
Reading The Witch Under the Mountain, by the incomparable Noah Goats and his daughters writing as “Audrey N. Allison,” brought back those happy memories. It’s about two young girls and their father, who tells them a tale of an evil witch buried under Temple Mountain—which just happens to be where theyare going camping the next night.
The two girls—delightfully named Audball and Ally-cat—are both excited and nervous about the trip, but as more and more elements of their father’s story are verified before their eyes, their fear grows, even while their father remains stubbornly oblivious to all of it.
Soon, it becomes clear that he has fallen under the spell of the evil witch, and it’s up to Audball and Allycat to save him—even if it means confronting dangers like ghosts, bears and walking skeletons.
The Witch Under the Mountain is, of course, a book for children; so the horror is kept at a level acceptable to an eight-to-twelve year old. Even so, it’s effective. There’s no setting I like more than a desert at night with hints of supernatural presences, and that’s exactly what this story delivers. There’s even a scene where the trio is trapped in an old abandoned cabin at night. I love things like that.
There’s something about scary stories aimed at children—they never completely lose their punch. I think it’s because fear is an unusual kind of emotion that unlike say, love, doesn’t evolve as we get older. The dark is always scary, whether you’re five years old or five hundred, because you don’t know what’s in it.
A good way to find the essence of something is to imagine explaining it to a child, and that’s why horror tales for children and about children work so well. Even in this tale, which is told with a generous side of Goats-ian humor, the classic tropes of curses and monsters in the night still make for a good atmosphere. My favorite scary stories usually have an element of fun to them—people like to be scared. I’m not sure precisely what biological or evolutionary reason there is for this trait, but it’s undeniable.
The real star of this book, though, is the illustrations. They are simple, black-and-white drawings that look sort of like charcoal sketches. They are simple, but effective and atmospheric. The cover gives you a good idea of the style—it’s stark and memorable. My only complaint was that there weren’t more of these illustrations—that’s how much I enjoyed them!
If you have young children, or if you just want to entertain the young child that lives in all of us, this book is perfect for the Halloween season.
Hasuga’s Garden is a strange and dream-like fantasy novel. It follows a woman named Alanee, who is taken from her small village to the sprawling and mysterious “Consensual City,” the seat of the government, ruled by the mysterious “High Council,” which includes the enigmatic Lady Ellar, the lecherous Sire Portis, and the telepathic seer, Sire Cassix, among others.
Alanee explores the bizarre city, discovering its festivals and rituals, guided by a young woman named Sala, who introduces her to many of the fantastic sights and sensations the place has to offer. Alanee also develops affection for a pilot named Dag Swenner, though he soon goes MIA during a cataclysmic event in some remote part of the world.
Slowly, Alanee discovers the truth of how the city really works. At the center of government, out-ranking even the councilors, is a seemingly-omniscient child-like being named Hasuga, who governs everything with his mind. The council allegedly shapes his wishes to some extent, but it is his will the reverberates across the world
Hasuga has, for as long as anyone can remember, been a five-year old child, but recent events have compelled the council to advance his age. Now he is entering puberty, and experiencing the accompanying desires. Alanee is brought to him, apparently to “assist” with this. Hasuga sends his mother away, much to the woman’s chagrin, and begins to spend time with Alanee, who is a bit fascinated, but mostly repulsed by this being. (Personally, I kept picturing him as the Nihilanth from Half-Life, which probably made Hasuga more frightening than he was supposed to be.)
Things get weirder from there. There are political machinations, apocalyptic prophecies, sex, war, romance, and ultimately an eerie meditation on the nature of reality itself.
That’s about all I can do as far as summarizing this book, because it really is just so far out there that it defies description. It’s a fantasy, broadly speaking, but with many other elements. You could quote different portions and make the book sound alternately like an Orwellian dystopia, (some of it seems like a satire of central planning, in fact) a poetic allegory, post-apocalyptic horror, or an erotic romance.
At times, it does seem to cry out for an analysis from the perspective of Freudian/Jungian symbolism. I’m generally not a fan of symbolist interpretations, but when you consider that major elements of the tale involve a boy—if you can call Hasuga that—losing interest in his “mother” and becoming obsessed with another woman, and ties this to themes of civilizational decay and rebirth, what else can you think? Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes a Freudian allegory is just a Freudian allegory.
I’m going to talk more about that shortly, but first, I have to talk about the prose in this book. It’s gorgeous. Haunting and lyrical, with descriptions of the most minor things being given in lavish detail. Some readers might find it slow, but personally, and perhaps surprisingly, I loved it.
The story is told in the present tense, which I found odd at first—it created a certain distance between me and the characters. (Which is counter-intuitive—you’d think it would make it seem more immediate.) I got used to this as I read, and it ultimately added to the surreal atmosphere.
There are a handful of typos and glitches, but overall, I thought the writing was excellent. There were a few times when characters would speak in plainer language–commonplace slang words, which seemed a little jarring. This may have been the intent, however; since usually when this happened, the character was supposed to be speaking in a shockingly blunt or even crude fashion. It just seemed strange to read modern slang, because otherwise the language seems foreign and distant.
The entire universe of this book, in fact, seems foreign and distant. It’s not clear exactly when or where it takes place, although there is a hint in some of the book titles mentioned fairly late in the story.
If I had one major complaint about the book, it’s the way the character of Hasuga’s mother is handled. She’s introduced well, and we learn a little about her, and then she’s largely out of sight, out of mind for the remainder, save for one brief, rather troubling scene close to the end. I felt that the character was under-used, which was a real pity. I may be in the minority here, but I like to read about female characters who are something other than beautiful young heroines with some grand destiny. I don’t mind the latter per se, and Alanee is certainly a fine character, but there are so many other female characters in Hasuga’s Garden who are complex and interesting, especially Lady Ellar, and I kind of want to read more about them than about the naïve beautiful young girl in an exotic city.
But then again, that may be the point. After all, events at the end of the book reveal that the structure of this world and its people are far from normal, and it may be that it’s all meant to be a reflection of the God-child’s own warped personality. Like I said, there are some serious existential puzzles at the heart of this story. It’s different, it’s weird, at times it’s downright disturbing—but it’s also well-crafted, thought-provoking and gorgeously written. I recommend it. And once you read it, feel free to come back here and comment, because it’s one of those books that it’s best to talk about with someone else.
This is a dark book, about flawed psyches, crises of faith, and unhappy families. It tells the story of a nun, Mary Agnes Adelli, who teaches at a Catholic boarding school in Illinois. One of the students under her charge is a rebellious girl named Helene, who feels abandoned by her father, a doctor who is traveling in Europe.
Helene repeatedly and flagrantly violates the rules of the school, coming into conflict with other students and Mother Adelli herself. Mother Adelli is soft-hearted by nature, and so is ill-suited to manage the student’s behavior, and given little support from her superiors.
Problems escalate, ultimately to the level of tragedy, and this brings Mother Adelli to confront her beliefs, as well as unexamined pain from her own troubled childhood.
The prose is beautiful, with gorgeous descriptions of bleak Midwestern landscapes in what seems to be a world of eternal autumn and winter. The characters struggle with complicated emotions, and for the most part, their inner thoughts are complex and believable.
Technically, there is almost nothing to complain about with this book. One or two very minor typos (well below the average number for an indie book) and a few times, the POV shifted a bit suddenly, but besides that, it was about as beautifully-written a work of literary fiction as I can imagine.
Now, I know I mentioned it already, but I want to hammer the point home: this book is very gloomy. Not only in subject matter, but in tone, in style, in pretty much every way a book can be. It felt as if events were rigged by the cosmos themselves to maximize anguish for the characters.
I haven’t read a book like this for a long time, but The Calling of Mother Adelli reminded me of the time I read a bunch of Thomas Hardy novels, one after another. Mother Adelli is like a later Hardy novel—think Tess of the D’Urbervilles or especially Jude the Obscure. Beautiful descriptions of bleak landscapes, characters struggling with trauma, grief, and the expectations family, society, and religion have placed upon them—all the things that make a novel Hardy-esque are here.
And some of the same problems I had with Hardy are present as well: in such a grim atmosphere, it was hard for me to find any character to root for. Adelli is sympathetic, but in a way that made me pity her for the misfortune caused by her lapses in judgment, rather than truly wish for her to “succeed” at anything. Every other character was, to a greater or lesser extent, unlikable in some way.
To be clear, I wouldn’t say it should have been written differently. I think the point of the book is that all human beings have their flaws, and that sometimes these flaws interact with one another in a way that inevitably produces a violent disaster.(Reconciling this point with the existence of an omniscient, benevolent Creator is another matter, one which the characters also struggle with in the course of the book.)
This is probably not a book for everyone—it’s not a light read, it’s driven by characters rather than plot, and it touches on a number of controversial issues. I don’t want to give away too much, but let me say that while early on I began to expect the tragedy that ultimately occurs about halfway through, it was still quite disturbing to read.
But with all that said, it is certainly a worthwhile book. I made the comparison to Jude the Obscure for more than one reason, because like that novel, The Calling of Mother Adelli has many elements that make for a classic of literary fiction. The writing is gorgeous, and the author clearly took great pains to craft every scene vividly.
I heard about this short story thanks to Lydia Schoch’s review. I encourage you to read her take as well, because she’s much better at writing these things without spoilers than I am. But I’m going to try anyway, because I enjoyed this tale quite a lot.
As Lydia notes, there are few stories that mention menstruation. Which is odd if you think about it, because it’s a normal part of life for 50% of the population. But apparently it’s a topic people prefer not to talk about—and demons too, as Terazael, the bloodthirsty-but-rather-helpless monster summoned in this story demonstrates. (You know, I never realized until just now that “demonstrate” has the word “demon” in it.)
Anyway, I can’t tell you much about this story without spoiling it, other than to say that it’s a delightful comedy about a woman who summons a demon while she’s on her period, and the comical antics and misunderstandings that follow. Now, if that’s not an original and intriguing enough concept to catch your attention, I don’t know what is.
Pads For His Throne is very short, but don’t let that stop you from picking it up. It’s not the size of the book that matters; it’s the size of the laughs you get from the story, and there are some big ones in here.
I admit to suffering from dystopia fatigue. I love the classics of the genre, like Nineteen Eighty-Four, but the last decade has seen so many bleak future/post-apocalyptic/totalitarian government-type stories that it takes a lot for me to pick one up. But after reading Lydia Schoch’s interview of Laurie Boris, I had to giveThe Kitchen Brigade a shot. And within pages, it won me over.
The Kitchen Brigade is set in 2049, in the remnants of a United States torn by civil war and occupied by Russian forces. Valerie, the daughter of the former U.S. Secretary of State, has been captured by the Russians and forced to work in a kitchen, serving a Russian general and his officers.
All the women serving in the kitchen are assigned numbers instead of names. Valerie is Three. Gradually, she gets to know the other women, all of whom came there by different routes, and who have different perspectives on the situation; from the foul-mouthed but good-natured Four to the aggressively unpleasant Two, who resents Three and sees her as a threat to her relationship with the main chef, the tough-but-fair Svetlana.
As Valerie gains the respect of Svetlana and the brigade (with the exception of Two) she also begins to realize that the situation is far less stable than it appears, and soon discovers that there are multiple factions jockeying for power, among both the Americans and the Russians, and, as in any good thriller, almost everyone has a hidden agenda.
The prose is clean and the dialogue witty—especially Four, who I think deserves her own spin-off story. Her scenes were a real highlight.
I also loved how Boris gradually tells us the backstory of how the United States collapsed—it’s done in bits and pieces; scraps of information picked up here and there, but at a certain point, it becomes very clear not only what happened, but just how disturbingly plausible the seemingly-unthinkable scenario really is. It’s an all-too-believable vision of how a cyberwar could work.
A few minor gripes: there were a few times when it was hard for me to keep track of where all the characters were during the climactic sequence. It was effective, don’t get me wrong, but I still felt a little confused. It’s a not a big flaw, though; and it could just be that I haven’t read enough thrillers to get the hang of it.
Also–and I’ll be vague here rather than risk giving too much away–there’s one scene where people are oddly reluctant to kill a particularly vile character. Boris did a really good job making this character unlikable, and provided realistic motivation for why the character behaves the way that they do, so major props for that. But this person is so unrelentingly hostile, it’s hard to feel any sympathy, although some characters do anyway.
All in all, this was a very well-crafted dystopia. And Boris has a real knack for describing the elegant dishes the brigade prepares over the course of the book. I probably haven’t given the food preparation scenes their due in this review, because I’m not much of a gourmet myself, but even I could tell they were well-done. (No pun intended.)
Earlier this year, I reviewed the novella Number Seven and the Life Left Behind, by Mayumi Hirtzel. This is another tale of espionage, intrigue, nefarious Russian agents, and people with numbers instead of names. As a fan of old Cold War spy stories like Secret Agent, it’s pretty exciting to me that people are telling stories like this again. If you liked Number Seven, I predict you will also enjoy the Kitchen Brigade. And if, like I was, you’re reluctant to check out another dystopian story, just know that this doesn’t feel like a random tyrant has been inexplicably installed, as is so often the case in dystopian fiction, but is carefully thought-out and well-described. Give it a try.
So I’m seeking your suggestions. What indie books do you recommend? While not essential, I have a strong preference for those I can get on Kindle. And yes, you can suggest your own book if you want to.