51Jxztd2h9LI heard about this book from my friend Pat Prescott’s review, and it sounded interesting, so I checked it out. I’m glad I did.

Oblivion is the name of a long-abandoned ghost town in New Mexico. A woman named Belinda finds it after walking out of her corporate job in frustration. In the town, she meets an artist named Ben and the two are immediately attracted, but initially are shy and afraid of one another.

Ben grows obsessed with Belinda and, at the urging of his friends, sells some of his art to raise enough money so he can buy the ghost town at auction, out-bidding the local tycoon, Cal Benton, the richest man in the country. Benton vows to get revenge, as he needs the land to build his business empire.

Ben and Belinda need people in order for the town to be recognized by local authorities, and so gradually draw homeless people, migrant workers, mystics, scientists and all sorts of colorful people into the town, gradually turning it into an experimental community. Benton and his family business, meanwhile, are gradually torn apart by their own attempts to destroy the community.

It’s very much a Utopian novel. Throughout the rebuilding of Oblivion, all the town’s residents are focused on environmental concerns. From scientists experimenting with solar energy to the mystics who seem to have supernatural power over nature itself, the book is a deep exploration of environmentalist themes, with the town and its inhabitants serving as models for these philosophies.

That said, some of the characters are more than mere puppets to act out the ideas. Cal Benton evolves quite a bit over the course of the novel, though the same cannot be said for his two hot-tempered sons. His daughter Brandy’s story is left unresolved, which is too bad, because in some ways she was the most interesting Benton.

There are a lot of odd characters espousing different philosophies in Oblivion, and it would take too long to summarize all of them here. For the most part, I enjoyed the colorful and diverse cast, though I did have a problem with one character, introduced very late in the book, and seemingly with no purpose other than to die. This character seemed like more of a caricature than the rest, and I felt the book would have been stronger had she simply been cut out entirely.

It’s in the descriptions that the book really shines, though. There are whole paragraphs describing the look of desert flowers growing over the abandoned buildings. Bruce has a knack for turning a phrase, and there were several times where I reread sentences just to savor how well-constructed they were.

The dialogue is not as strong. Possibly this is inevitable in a book where the main point is to communicate philosophical concepts, but often I found the characters’ lines just too awkward to be believable as things people would say to one another. 

There were a few typos, and in a couple cases, it was clear that autocorrect had just changed a character’s name completely, and no one realized it. I’m very sympathetic to this problem, as I know firsthand how hard it is to catch every typo. This is one of the great things about eBooks: it makes it relatively easy to revise such things.

The other technical flaw that bothered me was Bruce’s overuse of the passive voice. I am not an absolutist who opposes the passive voice always and everywhere, but it really was too much here. I lost track of how many times “a decision was reached” or “an apple was sliced”.  Maybe this was meant to create an effect, but it didn’t work for me.

Despite these reservations, Oblivion is a very interesting book, full of experimental, New Age ideas. I don’t agree with all of them by any means. Sometimes it seemed too idealistic for my tastes. But then again, I could just be a jaded reactionary.

The book it most reminded me of was Sheila Hurst’s Ocean Echoes. Just as Hurst’s novel was a dreamlike, mystical love letter to the ocean with a strong environmentalist theme, so Oblivion is a love letter to the desert, and all the life that hides in the apparent desolation. It’s not as polished as Ocean Echoes, but that same compelling, dream-like quality is there. It’s clear the author has great passion for his setting. Oblivion has its flaws, but it’s still worth reading just for the ideas it explores.

51KJSpI02SLEarlier in the year I read Audrey Driscoll’s terrific re-imagining of H.P. Lovecraft’s Herbert West–Reanimator short story, The Friendship of Mortals. So I was eager to read this second book in the series, which sees West changing his name, his home, and most of all, his personality.

The book begins by retelling certain parts of Friendship of Mortals from the point of view of West’s servant, Andre Boudreau, whom West restored to life after he was killed in  World War I. Andre of how he and West flee Arkham, and embark on a wild journey that takes them to various locales across America, with West–now living under the name Francis Dexter–showing unusual flashes of irrationality, romanticism, and guilt that were completely foreign to him in his old life.

Eventually, with West fearing that the law will catch up to him, the pair board a ship bound for Alaska, helmed by an eccentric Russian who, in addition to employing them in his kitchen, holds forth on his vaguely Fortean philosophies that suggest he knows more than he says. Eventually, after a series of adventures including a thwarted mutiny, West and Andre arrive at Bellefleur island in British Columbia. There, Andre finds employment at the local lighthouse and the narration shifts to the perspective of Margaret Bellgarde, a widow whose husband Richard encountered West during the war–though she does not know that the new island doctor Francis Dexter is the same man her late husband wrote to her about.

On Bellefleur Island (as everywhere he goes) West acquires a reputation for his miraculous healing powers, and this despite the fact that he has sworn off the revivifying techniques he used during his time in Arkham. He gradually becomes popular among the denizens of the island, and begins to form close relationships with the inhabitants of the region. It is these relationships that form the central drama that drives the latter half of the book, but I won’t spoil them here. Let it suffice to say that the book ends on a cliffhanger that promises far more will be revealed in the subsequent volume.

The alert reader will have noticed that I didn’t mention much of anything about Lovecraftian horrors, or the Necronomicon, or even of reanimation, in the above synopsis. And indeed, the horror element is greatly reduced here compared with The Friendship of Mortals. The Journey contains elements of many genres–from mystery to seafaring adventure to romance, and even a dash of courtroom drama towards the end; but Lovecraftian elements are at a premium.

In a way, I can see how this might bother some readers. When one reads a book about a character created by Lovecraft, one might reasonably expect a good deal of the old Lovecraftian staples. And when they fail to appear, one might feel cheated.

However, it didn’t bother me much. Here’s why: I felt the whole concept of “Herbert West: He Revivifies The Dead” had been explored about as thoroughly as possible in Friendship of Mortals. To have him simply doing it again in a different place would have been dull. I liked that Driscoll chose instead to transform the character into a man haunted by what he did.

Friendship of Mortals was impressive to me because it reminded me so strongly of Lovecraft. The Journey is a very different beast; and indeed, there is little in it that evoked Lovecraft at all. At times, I almost forgot the origin of the character altogether, and would actually be surprised when I saw a Lovecraft word like “Arkham” or “Miskatonic” on the page. There were a few dashes of horror here and there; and perhaps their very scarcity made them more effective. It made me think of M.R. James’s way of putting flashes of unspeakable horror into what at first appeared to be a mere comedy of manners.

But the author The Journey most strongly reminded me of was Steinbeck. Specifically, East of Eden. That was also a sprawling, sometimes downright meandering tale, which would wander so far afield of the core story that I would forget what the plot was, and sometimes find myself pausing to remember just how I’d come to be reading about these characters, who seemed to have nothing to do with ones I’d started reading about at the beginning.

And yet Driscoll, like Steinbeck was, is such a keen observer and has such a gift for storytelling that I never lost interest. I may not have known how the narrative got where it was, but I always wanted to know where it was going. The Journey is many things, but it was never tiresome or dull. It’s more firmly planted in the “literary novel” camp, as opposed to flirting with the “genre” one like Friendship did, but it’s still an awfully good piece of storytelling, which is the ultimate test of any novel.

There were a few weak points: the courtroom drama I referenced earlier seemed forced to me, and the suddenness with which Andrew Boudreau abandons West to work at the lighthouse seemed unbelievable to me, after all the time he’d served him. There were one or two other plot points that rang false to me as well, but I won’t spoil them here. None of them were so significant as to ruin the overall effect of the book; especially the latter half–I especially enjoyed the characters of Margaret and Captain Bellgarde.

Lastly, there was something that may be of interest only to me, but which I mention because it struck me so: at one point, Margaret develops a migraine headache, which is preceded by a visual disturbance that makes it impossible for her to read. The description of this was amazing to me, because I have had this, but never encountered anyone else who did. The first time it happened to me, I thought I must be having a stroke. It turns out to be a harmless thing called an “aura”, but it’s extremely strange when you don’t know what it is. Naturally, I felt a lot of sympathy for poor Margaret!

The Journey might not be what you expect. It’s so many different things, it’s hard to see how anyone could expect it, frankly. But while it may have its share of rough spots, it also has an incredible way of compelling the reader to keep going, to see what strange development is coming next. It’s an odd and sometimes puzzling book. I think that it might suffer a bit because the people most likely to enjoy it–literary fiction fans–are unlikely to read it because of the association with Lovecraftian horror. But don’t fall into that trap–it’s well worth a read.

51Gowi2XyLLTiny Shoes Dancing is a beautifully-written collection of short stories, most of which are about people struggling to connect emotionally with one another, or even with themselves. Most of the short story collections I’ve read are loosely tied together by a character or a place or simply a genre style. This one is tied together by a feeling: a persistent melancholy that permeates all. Many of the stories involve failed or failing marriages, and others involve still darker themes of emotional separation–including one particularly haunting tale of reincarnation.

Kalman’s writing is gorgeous, and the pacing of the tales is terrific. And although the mood is generally dark, there are flashes of humor here and there, as well as a few stories that include suspenseful moments worthy of a thriller.

For the most part though, it is a collection about the sadness that can be found in the relationships of everyday life. Repeatedly as I was reading it, I thought of a line from the game Knights of the Old Republic II: “It is all that is left unsaid upon which tragedies are built.” Kalman is interested in exploring just what those unsaid things are, and examining the tragedies built upon them.

As is probably true of all literary fiction, these stories might not be everyone’s cup of tea. If you prefer plots to characterization, some of the tales might not suit you, and if you like happy endings, be warned that happiness is at a premium in these tales. I remember my friend Pat Prescott telling me about a collection of Harlan Ellison stories that cautioned against reading all the stories at once, because the effect would be too depressing. Something similar might be warranted here.

But let me also tell you this: I myself typically don’t like literary fiction, and I prefer happy endings, or at least bittersweet ones. But I devoured this book in just a few reading sessions, mesmerized by Kalman’s prose and her empathetic characterizations. With many of the stories, I just had to keep reading, had to know what happened next, even though it was so far from my usual tastes. On the strength of that alone, I recommend giving this book a try. It might not be for everyone, but even so, it’s well worth reading.

Ocean EchoesI didn’t know what to expect from this book. Glancing at the categories and the description, it didn’t match any genre I was familiar with. I figured it would be a romance set on a scientific voyage. And it kind of is that, but there’s way more to it.

The book follows marine biologist Ellen Upton, an expert on jellyfish whose grant money is rapidly dwindling. In desperate need of a breakthrough to save her career, Ellen ventures out on a research ship into the Pacific, hoping to find something that will earn her more funding.

The majority of the novel is told from Ellen’s perspective, and in many ways, her plunge into the unknown depths of the ocean mirrors her journey into her own equally complex and mysterious psyche. I usually don’t like using such lit-crit terms, but that truly is what happens here, and what’s more, it works. It never feels like an overplayed metaphor, but rather an organic marriage of character and plot development.

Ellen has great difficulty feeling close to others, having gone through a painful break-up when her fiancé stole her research ideas for his own. Unwilling to trust others easily again, she loses herself in her work, much to the disappointment of Ryan, her loyal research assistant.

On the cruise, she meets other scientists and students, including one researcher whose skepticism of man-made climate change sparks a friendly rivalry. She and the other scientists also visit a small island populated with a tribe of welcoming natives, and a family whose patriarch has gone missing at sea. Ellen and Ryan later find him on another island that formerly housed a military installation.

The book is filled with strange vignettes that make Ellen’s experience feel more like a surreal journey into a mystical realm than a scientific expedition. From her encounter with a waiter who speaks of ghosts following her, to the magical rituals performed by the islanders, to the antics of one of the students on the expedition who has a penchant for dressing up as a gorilla, the book gradually builds a feeling of melancholy mystery woven from bizarre, dream-like incidents.

When Ellen finally makes the major discovery she has longed for, it is not a triumph, but rather a frightening experience—one that disturbs her so much she questions her own sanity. As did I, I’ll admit. I wondered if Ellen might be transforming into an “unreliable narrator” of sorts, though the book is written in the third-person.

Hurst’s prose throughout is haunting and hypnotic.  The tale unfolds at a slow pace, but the writing is filled with evocative descriptions and intriguing turns of phrase. At times, it reminded me of Steinbeck in the way it dwells upon seemingly minor things without ever becoming dull or tedious. Little details, like the apparent changing expressions of a rock face the islanders believe represents the moods of the sea, stick in the memory to create a beautifully odd atmosphere. (It reminded me of Mal, the demonic face in the trees in Patrick Prescott’s Human Sacrifices.)

Maybe it’s just because I saw the film adaptation so recently, but the book also put me in mind of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation. Like VanderMeer’s nameless biologist, Ellen’s seemingly cold reserve and preference for biology over human interaction mask a wounded soul with deep emotional scars. And also like Annihilation, Ocean Echoes depicts nature as simultaneously dangerous, mysterious, and eerily beautiful; all while weaving an environmentalist warning of humanity’s potential to unwittingly cause unimaginable harm to our own planet.

Does the book have flaws? A few, yes. Some of the scientific exposition sounds a bit awkward as dialogue, and I swear that a couple times some background information about jellyfish was repeated almost verbatim. Also, the above-noted slow pace of the book may not be to every reader’s taste. If you have a strong preference for fast-paced action, it might not work for you, at least early on.

But even then, I still encourage you to give Ocean Echoes a try. It’s a weird, haunting, hypnotic mystery of a book, a love-letter to the ocean, written with respect for its dangers and fear for its fragility. When it rambles, it rambles in the way the best novels do—with love and understanding of its theme that commands the reader’s attention.

It’s very bold to write and publish a book that doesn’t easily fit into any pre-defined genre, and that goes double for an indie author. And yet some of the greatest works of fiction ever created defy categorization. So I admire Hurst tremendously for going through with it and taking the risk to write this mesmerizingly weird and thought-provoking tale. It may not always be what you expect—but then, what better reason could there be to read it?

51-tF08D1ULPat Prescott is a long-time reader, commenter, and great friend of the blog. (My very first follower, actually—dating back to my pre-Wordpress days.) So, I feel a little sheepish that it took me this long to read his novel, Human Sacrifices.

It’s an extremely ambitious book—a blend of various genres, with elements of horror, of romance and of satire. The story follows Jan, a young schoolteacher who suffers through a brief marriage to an abusive husband, and tries to find peace in helping her students escape the perils of local gangs. She ultimately remarries to a thoughtful preacher, Paul, who has a tragic history of his own.

The horror parts of the story come from the allegorical demonic face that Jan sees in the trees outside her room early in the book—a face she refers to as “Mal”, a God of Death, and which comes to symbolize the evil in the world—whether it be the gangs, or Brother Bobby (a flamboyant fundamentalist preacher who holds considerable influence over Jan’s first husband), or the tedious nature of school bureaucracy that prevents Jan from teaching her students.

As you might imagine, the horror writer in me loved this idea, and thought the scenes where Jan addresses Mal were among the most effective in the story. These are deemed “hallucinations” by the other characters in the story, but for Jan, it ultimately signifies all the adversity she has to overcome.

Paul and Jan face plenty of adversity over the course of the book, whether from school administrators or religious fanatics, but also have plenty of good times and interesting discussions about relationships, sex, and religion.

Through it all, Prescott skewers many targets, from the everyday annoyances of the educational system to deeply sensitive religious topics. Jan’s second husband Paul holds forth at length on some of the most controversial issues—abortion, religious monuments on government property, gay rights, etc.—and on each of them delivers well-reasoned arguments against the worldview of the zealous Fundamentalists, all based on evidence found in the Bible itself.

Being not terribly well-read on the topic of religion, I found much of the terminology initially unfamiliar, but ultimately very interesting. For example, I learned about “millennialism”--a belief held by some Christians regarding Christ returning and ruling for a thousand years before the Final Judgment.

I admire Prescott’s courage for taking on these topics, and the viewpoint of a liberal protestant which he portrays was quite an interesting one to read.

Now, putting on my critic hat, I did have a few problems with the story, particularly in the middle section, where I felt things dragged a bit as the day-to-day facts of Jan’s relationship with Paul were explored. That could just be my tastes, though; as I’m not generally one for romance in novels. And while Paul quotes from plenty of male experts on sex and gender relations, I think it would have been good to include a bit more of women’s views on it. The female characters, in my opinion, all seemed a little too sex-crazed. There’s nothing wrong with sex-crazed characters mind, but I prefer to have some who are not very interested in sex at all, just to balance things out.

Also, I felt the book wasn’t divided into enough chapters. Cutting into smaller chunks might make things more manageable, and might even suggest a way to address the “flow” issue I mentioned above. As it was, they seemed a little too packed, and also a bit too sequential—plot twists and minor dramas arise, play out, and are resolved in a fairly linear fashion. It might work better if these plot threads were mixed up a little, so that different ones came to the forefront at different parts of the book. For example, the last chapter is largely Jan interviewing another character and learning her life story. I would have broken this interview up over the course of several chapters, so that we have more time to mull parts of it over, and to put the final part toward the end, but also coincide with other dramatic developments. (Of course, this is something that is very hard to do, and something I doubt if I myself could do—again, I respect the level of daring it takes to even attempt this.)

Finally—and this is an issue I can relate to, having struggled with it myself—there were some typos, missing commas, and run-on sentences, particularly in the first part of the book. These are just editing glitches, and probably inevitable. I heard about similar issues from readers of my most recent book. It seems like no matter how many times you reread something, errors still get through. The great thing about eBooks is that you can correct them.

Human Sacrifices is a promising effort which, with some revision, I think could become a very good novel indeed. I hope none of my criticisms seem too harsh, because I really think there is a lot of good material to work with here. Patrick has done me a great favor by critiquing my stories honestly, and his comments made me a better writer, so I think the least I can do is try my best to return the favor. I know firsthand that it’s tough to work on something for a long time and then hear people asking for changes and modifications—but I also know I was very grateful for it afterward.

Because in spite of the flaws I mention above, I give the author a lot of credit for trying to pull off something so ambitious. It’s not easy to address all of these different facets of life in a book, and probably doing so is bound to occasionally be messy—rather like life itself.