51fFraKeUML._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_This is a light-hearted novel about two imaginary expansion NFL teams, the Los Angeles Leopards and the Portland Pioneers. The two teams enter the league simultaneously—the Leopards led by coach Bobby Russell, who takes a methodical, conservative approach to slowly building a team. 

After a few seasons, Leopards owner Cedric B. Medill (yes, he’s a movie producer) grows impatient, and fires Russell, replacing him with brash, loud-mouthed defensive coordinator Randy Dolbermeier. Russell gets picked up as defensive coordinator by the Pioneers and, after a car accident leaves Pioneers coach Denzel Jackson incapacitated, takes over as interim head coach. And—can you believe it?—finds himself coaching in the Super Bowl against his old team and Dolbermeier.

Interwoven with the on-field exploits of the Pioneers and the Leopards is a subplot with a sportswriter/poet and a few of his colorful friends, who have been gradually uncovering that Dolbermeier is more than just an arrogant jerk—he’s an outright cheater, using underhanded methods to gain an advantage over his opponents. There have been hints of this beginning with his time as defensive coordinator for the Leopards, and once he’s given full control of the team, it gets really out of hand. And of course, they finish building their case against Dolbermeier just as the Leopards/Pioneers Super Bowl is about to be played, setting up a denouement which I won’t give away here.

The book is written with a light touch—Levy tends to favor warm, sometimes downright corny humor over tension or drama. A good example is when the journalist and his friends are investigating the visitors’ locker room at the Leopards’ stadium, suspecting that Dolbermeier has bugged it. I figured it would be a thriller-like sequence, where they have to sneak in to Dolbermeier’s hidden room and avoid getting caught. But no, they just end one chapter by saying “let’s go check it out” and in the next chapter, they say, “Yep, sure enough, it’s bugged.”

Don’t get me wrong; Levy’s humor and good-nature are infectious. Some of the malapropisms uttered by the heavily-accented equipment manager made me chuckle. And then, of course, there are Levy’s countless references to the NFL’s heyday. 

For those who didn’t recognize the name, Levy isn’t just a football fan. He is a Hall of Fame NFL coach who guided the Buffalo Bills to four consecutive AFC titles. (Alas, they went 0-4 in their Super Bowls.) His novel is filled with references to the football stars of the ‘80s and ‘90s. In particular, characters like Kelly James, Thomas Thurber and Deuce Smithers, among others, are clearly modeled on Bills greats who played for Levy. (The names that aren’t clear references to famous players or coaches are usually groaner puns—e.g. the front-office secretaries, sisters Nina and Ada Klock.) 

Even if you don’t like football, it’s an amusing book. Football fans will get the most out of it though, with all the references to famous players, and the discussions of football philosophy—Russell’s conservative, defensive-minded approach versus the glitzy, high-scoring style is part of the conflict at the heart of the story.

It’s also interesting to speculate as to who Levy had in mind as the model for coach Dolbermeier. While most of the good characters are pretty thinly-veiled, Dolbermeier is a little harder to figure out. His “whatever it takes to win” philosophy and his contempt for rules will make most football fans think immediately of Bill Belichick, but his brash, loudmouth manner seems more Rex Ryan-ish.  He might also be based on Chuck Dickerson, a defensive line coach for the Bills whom Levy fired for publicly trash-talking an opponent.

It’s worth noting that many of the cheating methods Dolbermeier employs have been used in the real NFL. The New England Patriots’ videotaping scandal is the most obvious parallel—although they’ve never been found guilty of taping other teams at practice. It is said that Peyton Manning believed the locker room at Gillette Stadium was bugged, although again, no one ever proved this. And coaches’ headsets are notorious for malfunctioning in Foxboro, another tactic that Levy’s villain uses. Dolbermeier also implements a bounty system like the one the New Orleans Saints used during their Super Bowl season. (Levy’s book was published in 2011, before that scandal broke.) 

It’s remarkable to me that a Hall of Fame coach would write a book like this, with cheating in the Super Bowl as the heart of the plot. It almost makes me wonder if Levy was trying to hint that cheating really is occurring in the NFL. Or at least, suggesting that the league is employing too many dishonorable, Dolbermeier-like coaches, and not enough forthright, honest ones like Russell and Jackson.

In any case, Between the Lies is a fun read for anyone who enjoys football, and especially for Bills fans like me, who long for the glorious days when Coach Levy had us winning the AFC, and the Patriots were in the cellar.

51Uao-BtASL-1._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_W.S. Gilbert is a major reason—possibly the major reason—I’m a writer. As a teenager, my mom introduced me to the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, and I was fascinated by Gilbert’s lyrics, and then later, by his dialogues and his entire style of storytelling. He wrote stories that were clever and strange and witty, and that usually included some veiled social commentary. And as often as not, he did it in rhymes that were both intricate and yet easy to understand, thanks to his massive vocabulary. 

And the really amazing thing is that so much of his commentary still seems relevant. Sometimes, I read about politics, and immediately what comes to my mind is some line of Gilbert’s, though he died more than a century ago. That’s a testament to the power of his words and his ideas.

At some point, probably around the age of 14 or 15 years old, I unconsciously began thinking, I want to be like that!

Strangely, I was always drawn more to Gilbert’s poems and his stage works than to his short stories. So when I saw that Andrew Crowther, the secretary of W.S. Gilbert Society, had released a collection of Gilbert’s short stories, I realized I needed to seize the opportunity to correct that.

Most of the stories contain Gilbert’s trademark sense of humor—the concept of introducing tropes of fairy tales and stage plays with practical, everyday life occurs frequently. I admit that the stories about pantomime and harlequinade baffle me to a degree. I read about pantomime, and I still don’t fully “get” it, and as a result, don’t totally get Gilbert’s stories riffing on them, either. It probably made sense to people who were familiar with pantomime. I’m not saying these stories are bad—far from it. “The Fairy’s Dilemma” in particular is quite good, it’s just hard for me to appreciate the Harlequin references.

Many of the stories in the collection were later adapted by Gilbert for the stage. Such is the case withAn Elixir of Love”, which he later turned into an operetta set by Sullivan, The Sorcerer.

I’ve always thought The Sorcerer was one of the weaker G&S operettas. But “An Elixir of Love” is absolutely hilarious. I laughed out loud multiple times reading it—the humorous idea of ordinary, sober businessmen who happen to deal in supernatural curses and love potions etc. is played to great effect here. (It’s in The Sorcerer too, but in my opinion, it just kind of gets lost amid all the demon-summoning.)

“Wide Awake” is an exercise in one of Gilbert’s other favorite motifs: people disguising their pure, black-hearted selfishness with a sop to politeness and decorum. Most of the characters are out for themselves, but they try to cloak it with manners and solicitude. 

“A Tale of a Dry Plate” is short and very sweet.

“The Story of a Twelfth Cake” is extremely funny and clever. It is marred by one unfortunate thing that I’ll address shortly, but overall it might be the funniest story in the collection. It’s another that Gilbert later adapted for the stage. 

“Lady Mildred’s Little Escapade” is a delightful tale—probably packed more of a punch in Victorian times than today, just because of changing social mores, but it’s still very clever.

“A Christian Frame of Mind” is downright shocking, for its time. A Swiftian satire, I would say.

There are more stories in this collection, and all of them are must-reads for Gilbert fans, and should-probably-reads for everyone else. And now, about that one little thing I have to address.

To a degree, everyone is a product of their time and place. Gilbert lived in Victorian England, and was a middle-class and later wealthy man. As you might expect, he held many of the typical attitudes of his time on such matters as race and sex. He was, by nature, a kind-hearted man, and so generally he seems well-disposed towards people, but that doesn’t stop him from writing things that modern readers will find shocking. The “n” word occurs in these pages, so be warned. Similarly, while Gilbert is no misogynist, and many of his female characters are actually quite interesting, there’s no doubt he could be patronizing towards them at times.

The book also includes Gilbert’s own illustrations to accompany his stories. These are a nice addition, although here again there is a problem with how Gilbert depicts non-white characters. (Interestingly, they are often depicted sympathetically in the stories.) Nevertheless, I do agree with the decision to present the stories and drawings uncensored, as Gilbert originally intended. The point of these things is, at least partly, their value as reflections of a bygone era, and it’s important for history’s sake to get an undistorted view of it, for good or ill.

Now, I know this book is a departure from what most people read. Indeed, Mr. Crowther had to work very hard to find a publisher for it. In this world of thrillers and horror and literary fiction, the modern reader may ask, “Why should I read this book of satirical Victorian fairy tales?”

Well, I’m going to make that case.

First of all, I have to address the fact that most of the modern books I read aren’t discernibly Gilbertian, unless you want to count Noah Goats’s comic novels, but he’s closer to a literary descendant of Wodehouse than Gilbert. Moreover, the books I’ve written aren’t especially Gilbertian. The influence that H.P. Lovecraft and Robert W. Chambers and various pulp and YA science-fiction authors had upon me is much more obvious. And yet, when you ask who got me into this writing business, there’s absolutely no question that the answer is Gilbert.

Precisely because Gilbert’s stories are mostly fairy tales and/or deal with superficially simple things like the stereotypical characters of low comedy, they are accessible as fiction. But because Gilbert was putting his own spin on them—playing with the conventions of fiction and of theater, they get at the most basic principles of telling a story. There’s always a lot more going on under the surface of a Gilbert story than you realize at first, and that’s what makes them interesting: they teach you how to think about fiction.

Short stories are better suited to experimentation than novels are. If you write a whole novel with an odd twist or a “meta” ending, there’s a huge risk you’ll leave the reader feeling like they’ve been shortchanged—like they invested in something that didn’t pan out. Whereas short stories encourage twists and unexpected endings. The goal of a short story is to surprise, to take a common trope and turn it on its head. This is what Gilbert excelled at.

As I was reading The Triumph of Vice, I realized Gilbert has a lot in common with my other unlikely storytelling hero, the great game-designer Chris Avellone. Both of them tell stories that upend the common conventions of their chosen medium. Gilbert wrote of honest burglars and incompetent demons, just as Avellone writes Dungeons-and-Dragons fantasy with chaste succubi and super-powerful rats.   

This willingness to play with tropes, to subvert convention, is the sign of somebody who really knows their stuff. When you’re a master of the craft, you know which rules you can break, and you’re always testing the limits. Gilbert was a great stage director because he was always pushing the edge of what stage directors could do.

And that’s what I want you to take away from this: Gilbert was great at what he did, and reading his work offers you a chance to see a brilliant creative mind working in a time very different from our own, without the constraints of current fads and fashion. Somebody who wrote nearly a hundred and fifty years ago, and his work is still read today. That’s what every writer wants, isn’t it?

Utopia Pending: A Collection of Short Speculative Fiction by [Rose, Fallacious, Burnett, Misha, Foley, Chris, Andrews, Alanah, Fitzgerald, MP, Bausse, Curtis, Young, Carolyn, Paxson, Mark, Thomson, Peter]I found out about this book from following Mark Paxson, one of the authors featured in this collection. It’s a collection of 12 short stories, each of which deal with utopian visions of the future, as a counter to all the dystopian fiction that has become so fashionable.

I was delighted to see this—I’ve long wondered about the disparity between utopia and dystopia in fiction. Each of the stories is by a different author, so I’m doing mini-reviews of each.

  • The Call by Alanah Andrews. I can’t discuss the plot of this much without spoiling it, but I loved how it was done, and quite plausible as well.
  • Raoul Wiener’s Common Sense by Curtis Bausse. This story was the one that worked the least for me, but I don’t wish to suggest that it was bad, because it wasn’t at all. In fact, one of my favorite lines in the book came in this story—it’s an ironic reference to the book 1984. It was more just a matter of too many framing devices stacked atop each other made it a little confusing for me. 
  • Endless Summer by Misha Burnett. This felt kind of Brave New World-ish to me. Although for me, just the phrase “Endless Summer” sounds more dystopian than utopian. (I hate heat.)
  • Sydney by Mia Dziendziel. This is a bit of a riff on the theme of “Ignorance is Bliss”. Which I guess is also the story of the Garden of Eden and Pandora’s Box, come to think of it… maybe those were the first Utopian stories. Also, this one’s pretty dark.
  • Chaos, by Fallacious Rose.  A very Swiftian take on the ironic side-effects of a miraculous technology.
  • The Museum by M.P. Fitzgerald. This one is the most humorous story in the collection, and also probably most closely aligned with my personal guess as to what the future will be like. And the ironic ending—I’d almost call it “the punchline”–is unforgettable. 
  • None So Blind, by Chris Foley. I loved this story. It reminded me of the old sci-fi adventure books I used to read as a kid. And all with a creatively constructed  and carefully thought-out setting, well-written characters, and some very relevant social commentary to boot. Again, everything in this collection is worth reading, but this story by itself would be worth the price of admission.
  • What Price Peace, by Carolyn Young. This was a good, Twilight Zone-like take on human nature when civilization is removed.
  • Maranatha by Michael Modini. I didn’t really “get” this story. But that’s on me, not the author, because it’s full of theological references that are, quite frankly, beyond me. It’s well-written, and obviously very well-researched, and I suspect that heads more knowledgeable than mine will appreciate it. 
  • Antarctica’s Pyramid by Morrill Talmage Moorehead. This story awed me. It’s the sort of weird conspiracy story I treasure, and the author weaves together  elements of various theories in a way I’ve only ever seen once before, in the game Deus Ex. And the outlandishness is balanced by a likable narrator with a grounded voice. Great stuff.
  • Two Turtles, by Mark Paxson. As I said, I’ve followed Mark for a while now, and he was the reason I heard this collection existed. This is a hard thing to judge, but I thought Mark’s story was the most unusual in the collection, and yet somehow also the most grounded in reality. It’s hard to describe, but I liked it a lot. The story feels mesmerizing and dream-like—a bit like Sheila Hurst’s Ocean Echoes. Maybe it’s because both feature the sea and an environmentalist message. 
  • Mother Nature by Peter Thomson. This story also has an environmentalist theme to it; told with a light touch and some very amusing lines.

This collection is a real treat. The stories all vary in tone and style so much that each feels fresh and enjoyable. Every reader is bound to have their own opinions on what really constitutes “Utopia”, but this collection will at the very least set them thinking.

A final note: another author and blogger whom I follow, Lydia Schoch, put out a call for hopeful science fiction last year. I’m not sure that all the stories in this collection would fit her criteria, but I think at least some would, and at the very least, I wanted to reference this, because it’s interesting that so many people’s thoughts are turning towards utopianism right now.

51DyswFSq-LThere are a couple of small things to note before I get to the substantive part of this review. First, there’s a smattering of typos and spelling errors in this book. I know firsthand that this is practically inevitable in indie books–my loyal readers alerted me to some in my own work when it was first published. But I know it’s something that will bother some people.

The book also hit a pet peeve of mine: the protagonist and narrator of the story is a former U.S. Army Ranger. At one point, he refers to a weapon’s “clip” when he obviously means its magazine. You might excuse this by saying (a) this is a pretty common mistake and (b) sometimes soldiers say “clip” simply because it’s shorter and easier to bark in battle than the three whole syllables of “magazine”. These are fair points, but it still grated on me. (To be fair, the rest of the descriptions of weaponry are quite accurate and logical.)

Now that’s out of the way and I can tell you how much I enjoyed this book, because it really is terrific. The protagonist’s voice is instantly engaging, and his sardonic humor fits the grim circumstance in which he finds himself–a brutal war between rival drug gangs in Mexico.

Make no mistake; this book is extremely dark. I praised Goats’s mystery novel Houses on the Sand for its memorable blend of witty prose and violent subject matter, but this book takes it to another level. The protagonist gets plenty of opportunities for gallows humor–as well as gun humor, knife humor, helicopter gunship humor and so on; because implements of death abound in these pages, and they are put to use frequently.

The style reminds me a bit of Chris Avellone, whose name long-time readers may recognize as one I always mention when discussing all-time favorite fiction writers. Like many an Avellone plot, On the Other Side of the River involves someone trying to play rival gangster factions against one another, and the prose consists of dark musings on mortality and morality, written with tremendous wit.

And the pacing! The pacing is incredible. It’s fast, but not too fast, and there wasn’t a moment when I felt bored. Even during the relative “lulls” in the story, there was tons of tension as I wondered what would happen next. A few times, I got so nervous that I skipped ahead a page or two to see how the situation would be resolved. I just couldn’t take the suspense. I do most of my reading while I’m on the bus to and from work, and when I was reading this I’d get so absorbed I nearly missed my stop more than once.

It’s true that part of this is due to my personality as a reader. I’ve come to realize that I’m incredibly easy to manipulate when reading fiction. Put somebody in danger, and I just have to know how it works out, even if it seems a bit contrived. And if it’s a woman, then I’m really hopeless; the woman-in-peril trope gets me every time.

What’s funny is, I was thinking about what an easily-manipulated reader I am when this very topic came up in the book itself. One character mentions to another how he feels about being manipulated by movies. It was an interesting meta-moment. Incidentally, this scene reminds me of another thing I loved about the book: the repeated references to classic films, including two of my favorites, Lawrence of Arabia and Jason and the Argonauts.

It’s the little touches like this that make On the Other Side of the River so engaging. Goats is great at going the extra mile to really lavish detail on small things. I’m rather in awe of his skill at this, actually, because I’ve often been guilty of impatience in my writing. I don’t want to spoil anything here, but I’ll give a brief and fittingly macabre example of what makes his writing so good: there’s a scene in this book where some people are in a confined space and moving around a corpse that’s lying on the ground. If I had written this scene, I would have treated the corpse as merely an obstacle to be mentioned briefly and then dealt with only as the living characters needed to navigate around it.

But Goats lavishes more attention on it than just treating the deceased character as part of the scenery–he has his narrator describe him almost as a character in his own right. And that adds something to the story–granted, it’s something very grim, but it’s important to give the reader these details. “Meat on the bones of the story,” as my friend Patrick Prescott would say. (And see; didn’t I tell you this thing is dark?)

This is one gripping page-turner, and I say that as someone who normally doesn’t go in for those types of books. This one worked for me; and all the double-crosses (and triple-crosses, and etc.) kept me guessing right up until the last page as to who was good, who was bad, and how it would all end up.

So how does it all end up, you ask? Well, I wouldn’t dream of spoiling that! Even after I thought I was ready for anything after all the twists that had come before, the ending still surprised me, and while it’s not the direction I thought it would go, it absolutely works in the moment. I don’t want to say any more than that, but just know that it’s the kind of ending that you can talk about at length with your friends after you all read it.

And this brings me to an important point, which is that people need to read it. Seriously, according to the author himself, this is his least popular book, and I can’t for the life of me figure out why. I would have expected it to be a great hit–it grabs you from the first page and just keeps building the tension from there. I could easily see this being made into a big-budget movie; it’s not like Hollywood has any qualms about violence or dark plots.

Oh well, the book’s usually better than the movie anyway. So I suggest you “get in on the ground floor”, as they say, and check this one out before it becomes such a hit that some studio snaps it up and makes a film of it. They might be able to do the dialogue and fight scenes all right, but they’ll never be able to capture Goats’s witty descriptions on the big screen.

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.

51r5HIQ4ckLMiira tells the story of Miira Tahn, a dying woman who enters a virtual world where she can live in a perfectly realistic simulation of health and youth. However, the medical team tasked with performing the procedures necessary to prepare her for this are not all to be trusted, nor is the corporation overseeing it innocent of unsavory business practices. 

The first half of the book tells of Miira’s preparation to enter Innerscape, her psychological distress at leaving the physical world behind, and fear at the procedures necessary to prepare her for it. 

I should warn readers: I actually found some the descriptions of the surgeries unsettling to read. They were actually more disturbing to me than many books I’ve read that depict actual violence—I’m not sure why this is, as obviously there is no harm or peril intended in these scenes, but that was my reaction. That’s not a criticism, though; indeed, it shows how well-written these scenes are.

The second half of the book deals with Miira adjusting to the new world of Innerscape, all while dealing with the machinations of the various staff members assigned to help her adjust. At times, in the whirlwind of all the tests they need to run to ensure that all Miira’s senses are functioning properly, it seemed like a sex comedy set in a cyberpunk world. Again, that’s not a bad thing. I’m all for genre-mixing.

I admit, I thought the last quarter or so of Miira felt a bit rushed. Throughout the book, there are also several sub-plots and hints of a dystopian real world outside the virtual Innerscape. These are never fully explored, and the ending felt rather abrupt. But then, this is only book 1 of a trilogy—it’s clear that there are many questions to be answered in subsequent books.

And, make no mistake, I love the premise here—virtual worlds are a neat idea, especially to a gamer such as myself. It was fun to read this after just recently re-reading Ben Trube’s Surreality earlier in the summer. Both books, while very different in style and tone, examine how virtual reality grants a chance at an “idealized” new life, and how it brings out different facets of different people. 

Miira is a fast-paced read with a compelling premise. I’m curious to see how the plot and characters introduced in it are developed in subsequent books.

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.

Imperial PassionsImperial Passions is a sweeping historical novel told from the perspective of Anna Dalassena, who at the beginning of the tale is a 14-year-old orphan girl living with her grandparents. Over the course of the novel, she grows up, marries, becomes a mother, and through it all is witness to many major events during a tumultuous time in the Byzantine Empire–emperors and empresses rise and fall, wars are waged, and all the while daily life goes on in what was then one of the most powerful cities on Earth

A major plot thread is Anna’s hatred for Constantine Ducas, a powerful official in the imperial court who viciously abuses his wife, Anna’s cousin Xene. Ironically, by the end of the book, she finds her family in an uneasy alliance with the man–though he is clearly maneuvering to gain power for himself, just as many of the other palace bureaucrats do.

One of the things I liked most about the book is the way the political machinations cause real effects in the characters’ daily lives. Another plot thread is how the government levies taxes on its citizens to build extravagant churches and palaces, while failing to pay soldiers on the empire’s edge. It’s one thing to read that someone is an officious bureaucrat–it’s another when you read that their corrupt tax collection scheme is robbing the main character. (The Econ major in me also liked seeing an early example of Ricardian equivalence.)

The large cast of characters is composed largely of actual historical figures, though in a few cases Stephenson takes understandable liberties, given the relative lack of historical information. Some of the most memorable characters are Anna’s uncle Costas, who teaches her about strategy through their frequent chess games, and the bureaucrat Psellus, a “Vicar of Bray“-like character who manages to retain his high office by constantly courting the favor of the various rulers.

Imperial Passions is a truly ambitious work, and Stephenson clearly has done extensive research. Almost every aspect of Byzantine life is covered–food, clothing, travel, religion, marriage and almost anything else you can think of is discussed in some fashion. As a result, the story is rather slow to unfold. If you like a rapid-fire plot with lots of sudden twists and turns, it might not be your cup of tea. And there are times when the otherwise commendable commitment to authenticity hurts the flow of the tale–for example, since many of the characters are historical figures, there are a lot of duplicate names. I wish I had a solidus for every “Marie” and “Constantine” who crops up.

Also, because there are few historical novels about Byzantium, (compare with how many there are about, say, Tudor England) some readers may be intimidated by the unfamiliar setting and the forbidding Byzantine terminology, although there is a helpful glossary in the back. But it’s well worth sticking with it, even–maybe especially–for readers unfamiliar with the setting, because you will end up learning quite a lot about a fascinating and unjustly neglected period in history.

[Imperial Passions is available here. Also be sure to check out the author’s website for lots more information on the Byzantines.]

516XMGMHmwL._AC_US218_The Prize is a fast-paced medical thriller with a compelling plot: Dr. Pam Weller has made a Nobel-worthy breakthrough in Alzheimer’s disease research, finding a drug with the potential to cure it. But a more senior researcher in the same field, the ambitious Professor Eric Prescott, will go to any lengths to steal her discovery and gain the Nobel Prize for himself.

And when I say any lengths, I absolutely do mean any—even illegal and immoral methods are on the table for Prescott in his quest to satisfy his ambition. The only thing Pam has to help her against his machinations are her own wits and the help of her boyfriend Jake, a former FBI agent.

So much of the book hinges on its plot that I don’t want to give away too much here. What I found most interesting is how it presents the field of medical research. The researchers rarely seem to think about the implications of curing Alzheimer’s in terms of what it means for humanity at large. For them—both Weller and Prescott—it is a personal challenge with personal rewards. The difference is that Weller is fundamentally an honest person, whereas Prescott is not.

The author is a medical researcher himself, and his experience clearly shows: issues that might seem trivial to the layman, like questions of which author is listed first on a research paper and the details of tenure review processes, take on extreme importance for many of the characters. He captures the nitty-gritty details of research and its associated bureaucratic logistics very well.

My only criticisms of the book are these: first, some chapters are written from the villain’s point of view as he executes his plan, which takes away the suspense. When we already know what he has done, it makes it less exciting when the good characters uncover it. (On the other hand, it was interesting to explore his motivations and see the twinges of guilt he feels as he commits his crimes.)

Second, some of the dialogue was a little awkward and contained lots of exposition. I sympathize with this—it’s very hard to write dialogue that both sounds natural and conveys the information the readers needs to have. This is especially true for a story set in a highly-specialized field like medical research, where there is lots of jargon the characters would presumably know, but that the reader may not.

But these issues didn’t seriously detract from my enjoyment of the book. The Prize is fast-paced and easy to read. If you like medical thrillers, or really thrillers in general, I recommend giving it a try. It will make you look at every press release and news report you hear about “research breakthroughs” in a new light.