TheRavenThis 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. 

VanderImagine this: a story about a brilliant scientist in Albuquerque who is mad at the world, and uses his intelligence to get back at it.

Yeah, yeah, I know; you’re probably thinking, “That’s an outline of the show Breaking Bad.” And yes, that is true. It’s also the outline of Vander’s Magic Carpet, which my great blogger friend Pat Prescott wrote in the late 1980s, almost 20 years before Walter White ever appeared on television.  

Not that I mean to say they are the same thing, because there are some very significant differences. Notably, Eugene Vanders is a considerably more likable character than White. And his method of “making the system pay” as he puts it, turns out to be very novel indeed. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Prof. Vanders is working away at an idea one evening when his home is raided by police in a drug raid. When they find no evidence to convict him, they plant some of their own, as part of an ongoing program of framing people that is being conducted by corrupt officers.

Vanders’ wife and daughter are traumatized by the attack, and eventually both die as a consequence—his daughter by suicide, his wife at the hands of another corrupt member of the justice system. 

Vanders finds that he is not the only victim of this perversion of the justice system: he’s in prison with two other men framed in the same way. Together, they begin working on a plan to expose the men who put them there—and to revolutionize society while they’re at it.

Prof. Vanders has come up with a plan to build flying cars. Once out of prison, he begins selling his technology to government agencies, along with the help of his released fellow inmates. And gradually, he also buys, threatens, and persuades his way into avenging his family, all while building his empire and starting a new family, as well.

And yes, he makes the system pay. He makes a good on the threat he makes to the judge who sentences him near the beginning of the book that he will “make Billy the Kid look like a boy scout,” too. And the way he does it is very clever. But I won’t spoil it here.

I love the themes of this book—a genius scientist out to settle old scores, corrupt government officials harming those they are meant to protect, and in the background, explorations of ideas about society, morality, and economics. 

My favorite character is probably Stanley Wade, the former High School teacher framed in the same way as Vanders, who ends up serving as his right-hand man while he builds his company. He had been a history teacher, and as such is always suggesting historical parallels. You know I love that.

Now, there are some technical issues in terms of typos with this book—understandably, given how hard editing and version control must have been back when it was first written. It was Pat’s first novel, and first novels are almost always technically rough. Plus, it’s just hard to edit your own work. (I should know–just the other day I found a typo in one of my books that I’d already read over about a hundred times.) 

Also, there were a few sequences that, while quite good, seemed to go by too quickly. For instance, at one point a certain character from someone’s past returns to threaten their new life. This is a great concept, but the whole sequence passes so quickly I felt like there wasn’t time for the tension to adequately build.

But these issues aside, I really enjoyed the themes of this book, and I liked how the political and economic ideas were interwoven with the plot.

And to follow up on my earlier point, I think if any entertainment people out there are reading this, there’s great material here for a film or series. I don’t know if Pat’s willing to sell the adaptation rights, but if he is, someone should approach him about it.

Hasuga's GardenHasuga’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.

mother adelliThis 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.

This book was brought to my attention by Mark Paxson. On his blog, he cataloged how he aided Keithley’s efforts to get the book independently published after no publisher would take it. And this is why I recommend that you consider reading it: because this book is clearly the labor of someone who spent a great deal of time honing her skill as a writer—a story we would not have the chance to read, if the decision were left solely to publishing companies.  It may not be for everyone, but better that we each have the choice to decide for ourselves, because it is most definitely for some of us.

patchwork warriorsI don’t read a lot of epic fantasy. But when Audrey Driscoll recommends a book, I pay attention, regardless of genre.

Of Patchwork Warriors begins with a glossary of terms used in the world of the novel, which is called the Oakhostian Empire. These include amusing words like “kerfluffeg” and “blimping,” a mild obscenity, as well as terms like “Stommigheid,” which is a peculiar sort of ether—indeed, sometimes called “the Ethereal”—which is not entirely understood. It’s something like the Force in Star Wars, but it has a Lovecraftian element as well, in the sense that messing with it can summon unspeakable monsters from beyond the known world.

Naturally, a villain by the name of Lord Ragithyl is trying to do exactly this, and so creates a ripple effect across the empire, catching the attentions of Meradat, one of the Custodians, (a sort of religious order) the LifeGuard, (the army) as well as merchants, mercenaries, and an eccentric young woman named Karlyn, who has a nose for evil spirits related to Stommigheid—or, in her colorful dialect, “storm-higgle.”

Karlyn and Meradat travel together, and eventually meet a LifeGuard named Arketre Berritt, a medician. Karlyn and Berritt gradually become friends, as their adventures lead them to a port town under attack. In this attack, they meet a woman named Trelli, who has unwillingly gained mysterious magical Stommigheid powers which among other things, make her hands glow red and blue. The three women are gradually drawn into discovering and combating the wicked Lord Ragithyl’s plot, as well as political jockeying from various factions of the empire.

It’s a strange tale Llewellyn weaves, with lots of different threads to it, but the heart of the book—and for me, the best part—is the banter between the three main characters. Berritt (Or “Flaxi,” as Karlyn calls her) is very likable, Trelli’s down-to-earth, good-natured personality is relatable, and Karlyn… well, Karlyn is almost indescribable. From her obsession with fire, to her keen sense of smell, to her bizarre jargon, she’s a unique character. Sometimes she was annoying, but she was supposed to be, and like Trelli and Berritt, I grew to like her in spite of it all.

The book ends on a satisfying note, but still leaves a lot to be explored in the sequel. It’s actually supposed to be a four-part series, I believe.

The language in this book is very clever, and Karlyn is only the most obvious example. As Audrey mentioned in her review, some of the invented swear words are quite addictive. I applaud Llewellyn for that. 

The big flaw is the familiar trouble with most indie books: typos. I felt they were more numerous here than in the average indie, although that may be an illusion simply because this book, as befits an epic fantasy, is longer than average. And because of Llewellyn’s creativity with the language, it sometimes makes it difficult to follow some passages. The typos seemed heaviest in the middle of the book—the beginning and end were smoother.

Beyond that, there were times when it was confusing as to what was happening, and some of the concepts relating to the Stommigheid were so abstract, it was tough to visualize. One thing that I would have found helpful would be the inclusion of a map of the world at the beginning. I know the Oakhostian Empire is based on Europe, but that wasn’t enough for me to get situated. Certain groups were similar to European nations, but that still didn’t give me a good idea of where things were relative to one another.

But despite these flaws, Llewellyn obviously put a lot of time into building this world. More than any novel, it reminded me of the famous fantasy RPGs of yore: Planescape: Torment, Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights, Pillars of Eternity and so on. Even the lead trio fits into the mold of classic RPG archetypes: Berritt is a healer/soldier, Karlyn is a quintessential rogue, and Trelli is a mage. 

In fact, as I think about it, I really want to play an RPG set in this world. Chris Avellone or Josh Sawyer ought to see if Llewellyn will be willing to license a game adaptation.

I originally was going to end my review there, adding only that I’ve already started Volume 2, Our Skirmishers of Lace, Steel, and Fire, and then link to Llewellyn’s blog.

But, alas! The blog no longer exists. In fact, going to the post where Audrey originally re-blogged the news about the launch of Volume 2, which was how I discovered the series, I find all that’s there now is Audrey’s text—Llewellyn’s post is gone, along with the rest of his blog.

It bothers me when a blog vanishes. I don’t like to be nosy, and no blogger is obligated to keep their work around if they do not want to. But all the same, it makes me uneasy when years’ worth of writing just vanishes. It disturbs both the blogger and the historian in me. I only read a few posts of Llewellyn’s, but I enjoyed those that I did, and had been planning to read more about his process once I finished the first volume.

In retrospect, perhaps Llewellyn’s conception of the Stommigheid is not so abstract after all; for we blogger-folk are met upon an equally precarious and mysterious plane of existence.

But enough! If you like epic fantasy, consider giving Of Patchwork Warriors a try. After all, I don’t like epic fantasy, and even I thought it was fun, in spite of its flaws.

Andrew Crowther is a writer I’ve followed for some time. I was delighted to see he recently started a new blog, and today he has a great post about four books: Vice Versa, Good Omens, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and The Man Who Was Thursday. I’ve only read Hitchhiker’s Guide, and a few excerpts from Man Who Was Thursday in the game Deus Ex, but I love what Crowther says in this post, particularly:

The end of the world was in the air; it was ten years before the Millennium, and almost subconsciously a lot of us felt that if things were going to end, that would be a good date for it.

As someone fascinated by the concept of fin de siècle and what was sometimes called “millennial madness” in the ’90s, this got my attention. I’ll have to read Good Omens.

Besides that, Crowther has identified the key elements of writing a philosophical comedy.         Which I never even realized was a genre before, but now I see that’s exactly what these books are.

A big problem in my fiction is that my endings are too rushed. I used to think this might be part and parcel of the No Description problem, but I realize now it’s a separate issue. A number of readers raised this complaint with all my early stories, and while I tried to improve in The Directorate, it still came up.

It’s also proven to be a problem with the novel I’m working on now. Several beta readers have said the same thing, and I agree with them. The ending is, once again, too rushed.

At this point, you might be thinking, “So add more stuff then, stupid!”

The problem with that is I can think of nothing else to add. The ending comes along when it does because all the pieces are in position, and it seems natural to tip the first domino and set things in motion. If I add extraneous material, readers will notice that I’m just killing time.

I hate when authors drag things out. The best example I can think of is Stephen King’s 11/22/63. While I liked some parts, there were also times when I wanted to yell, “Just get on with it already!” Since the book hinges on an event which happened in the past and which the reader is anticipating, the way King stalled with one “the past is obdurate” setback after another was annoying to read.

In general, I’d rather something be too short than too long. If a reader thinks it’s too short, it implies they want to read more. Whereas if it bores them by being too long, they’re unlikely to read anything by the author again.

But, better than being too short or too long is being exactly the right length. I have reached a paradoxical point where the book isn’t as long as it needs to be, yet making it any longer would feel too long. Which is another way of saying that something is missing, but I don’t know what it is.

*The title isn’t mine. It’s the title of a Let’sPlay of Knights of the Old Republic II, my favorite video game of all time, which is also notorious for its allegedly rushed ending.

fireMy Father’s Fire is a well-constructed and clever mystery novelette about a man uncovering dark secrets from his family’s past. If you’re already familiar with Phillip McCollum, all I need to say is that this is a classic example of his work: a fast-paced story which packs a lot of developed characters and plot into a fun and readable package. Despite the short length, there’s plenty of atmosphere, backstory, and conflict here.

If you’re new to McCollum’s work, this is the perfect introduction to his style. Check it out, and I’ll wager you’ll want to pick up his collection of 52 short stories as soon as you finish.

I was just thinking the other day about how much fun these kinds of “bite-sized” tales–what Mark Paxson calls “long short stories”–are, both for readers and writers. For readers, you can gobble them up in a single reading session. And for writers, you get the pleasure of telling a tale and seeing readers’ reactions without having to toil with little or no feedback for the length of time it takes to write a novel.

Devil and WolfHow to describe The Devil and the Wolf? I could tell you that it deals with questions like whether humans are innately good or evil, what it means to have a soul, and that it deconstructs and reimagines many classic aspects of mythology and religion.

But that makes it sound like pretty heavy stuff. Like Paradise Lost or something; one of those great works of classic literature that hardly anybody reads because it’s so intimidatingly hard to understand. The Devil and the Wolf isn’t like that. It’s a lighthearted romp—a divine comedy, one might say. Heaven and its angels and Hell and its demons have large roles to play in the story. Besides Mephistopheles, the title devil, Belial, Beelzebub, Lucifer, Lilith and other classic hellish figures appear in the story, as do angels like Gabriel, Raphael and so on. 

There are humans in the story as well, including a team of aspiring young paranormal researchers, and a truly unpleasant couple, one-half of which is the resentful employee of Mephistopheles, though despite her hatred for her boss, she doesn’t realize he’s actually an ancient prince of hell.

And then there is the other title character: JR Wolfe, a wolf transformed into a human by the powerful magic of the devil, as part of his plan to put an end to a millennia-old test devised by the forces of Heaven and Hell to evaluate human souls. This test is part of a larger cosmology that Pastore has constructed, and which I absolutely loved. It reminds me of the religions and spiritual hierarchies and planes of existence as imagined in RPGs—yes, even including the legendary Planescape: Torment.

How does Pastore manage to make a plot work with such a disparate blend of characters? Marvelously. I would never have imagined it could be done, and yet he has done it, in a manner that was incredibly organic and natural—so smooth in fact that I didn’t even see the gears of the plot moving towards the climax until it had almost arrived.

The characters are an absolute delight, from the hilarious banter between JR and Mephistopheles, to the political machinations of Hell’s denizens, to the stuffy formality of the angels. The dialogues are full of clever insults and comebacks, and JR’s unrelenting destructiveness is unfailingly hilarious.

But beyond that, there is some real meat to this story—questions of morality, humanity, and mortality are all in play here, but in a way that’s entertaining and fun to read. That’s why I wouldn’t describe it as a philosophical novel, even though it undoubtedly is. It would give you the wrong idea.

In telling someone about this book, I called it The Master and Margarita meets A Confederacy of Dunces. The parallels aren’t exact, but that’s the best I can do. If you’re not familiar with those titles, know that both are (a) extremely weird and (b) widely considered to be some of the greatest literary works of the 20th century.

It’s probably not a coincidence that great things are also a bit strange. We don’t normally think of “strange” or “weird” as compliments. But then again, it’s hard to imagine praising something by saying “It’s so normal,” either. 

The Devil and the Wolf is such a strange, outlandish comic fantasy, and yet every character feels so real. They all have discernible goals, motivations, and beliefs, which makes the whole world Pastore created seem immediate and alive. There might be an occasional line which falls flat, but as a whole, it all works together delightfully well. My only complaint, and it’s a minor one, is that I would have liked to learn a bit more about the young paranormal investigators. They are very promising characters.

The usual caveat about typos that comes with most indie books (including my own) applies here, although given its length, I was impressed by just how few there were.

How to describe The Devil and the Wolf? I still don’t know—this review doesn’t do it justice. All I know is, it’s weird, thought-provoking and a Hell (and Heaven) of a lot of fun.

41cwxxvN-bL._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_Nola Fran Evie is a story about four women, each trying to make a difference in the world. The three title characters are all players in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, organized in the 1940s. The three starred for the Racine Belles, until the league folded when taken over by businessman Harvey Shaw.

The three women go their separate ways from there, until they meet again at a Cubs game–Nola bringing her baseball-loving son, Fran photographing the action, and Evie as the unhappy wife of the same Harvey Shaw.

From there, their lives intertwine in strange ways, as each tries to cope with life after baseball in her own way, amidst the conventions and prejudices of the 1950s. Nola juggles single motherhood with work, Fran wrestles to control her own fiery emotions, and Evie struggles with her loveless marriage.

All three women’s stories are told through flashbacks, prompted by items found in an old handbag by the fourth woman, Jacks, another baseball lover who discovers them as she is in the process of boxing up her belongings for a trans-Atlantic move.

The different threads blend together well, and each of the main characters is clearly and distinctly drawn, each with a vivid personality that makes them enjoyable and memorable. I especially enjoyed the interactions between Nola and her son.

In the end, all three characters’ stories tie together in a logical and satisfying way. And Jacks, too, finds herself fitting into their tale as well.

This book is more driven by characters than by plot, but the crisp prose and witty dialogue make it all flow smoothly; the story never drags, and the jumps between different time periods are handled well.

I was expecting the book would feature more baseball than it actually does, but after roughly the opening quarter of the novel, the sport becomes secondary–though still important as a way of bringing people together, and as a metaphor. (To be honest, this was kind of a relief to me–I’m not a big fan of the game. But even I could appreciate how well-written the baseball portions were.)

There are memorable lines throughout Nola Fran Evie, and I was consistently impressed by Skrabanek’s skill at memorable descriptions. Even details like clothes and household objects–which I sometimes find myself skimming past in books by big-name authors–are described with wit and care.

This is a charming, well-crafted book with lots of period atmosphere and vivid characters. Nola, Fran and Evie feel like real people, so much so that I suspect different readers will react differently to each one. Fran’s personality really stood out to me–she reminded me of someone I once knew, and Skrabanek explores her psychology so well that I felt as if I understood my old acquaintance better for having read the book. That is a testament to the quality of the writing.

Lovers of feminist literary and historical fiction, take note: Nola Fran Evie deserves your attention.