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.

The Bone Curse
This is such an awesome cover.

<SOME SPOILERS AHEAD!>

I read Carrie Rubin’s first two books last year and enjoyed them tremendously, so I was very eager to read her latest effort, The Bone Curse. It tells the story of Benjamin Oris, a young medical student who injures his hand on an ancient bone in the Paris catacombs. Soon after, his loved ones begin to succumb to a mysterious illness. Oris, as one would expect of a med student, is a rational and logical sort of person, dismissive of supernatural explanations for the affliction.

But gradually, as more bizarre events begin to occur all around him, Oris discovers that he is descended from a cruel plantation owner who raped the daughter of a powerful Vodou mambo (female High Priest). To avenge her daughter, the mambo placed a curse upon the plantation owner’s bloodline.

Oris stubbornly continues, in spite of his friend Laurette’s urging, to maintain his faith in medical science and reject supernatural explanations, but as more and more of his loved ones begin to fall ill—and as events in his personal and professional life begin to spiral increasingly out of control–he finally has to admit the possibility that there is something beyond a normal illness at work. This leads him into a desperate effort to end the curse through extreme measures, and brings him into conflict with an ancient Vodou conspiracy.

I’ve never read anyone who can write a page-turner like Rubin can, and Bone Curse is similar to her previous books in that it quickly becomes impossible to put down. The last line of one chapter late in the book was an absolute gut-punch, and I just had to keep going to find out what happened. She has a real talent for writing lengthy but well-paced action scenes that hold the reader’s attention. (I’m probably unusual in this regard, but I often start to skim when I read fights or chase sequences in thrillers—but never in Rubin’s books.)

While Bone Curse, like her other books, has many medical elements—including a possible alternate scientific explanation for the mysterious illness afflicting Oris and those he cares about—the book struck me as primarily a supernatural thriller, and it’s clear the author did her research on Haitian Vodou. Many of the eerie rituals are described in some detail, and she does a great job of differentiating between true spiritual practices and the “Hollywood” caricature that the word conjures up for most people.

All in all, The Bone Curse is a gripping and fast-paced thriller. And as it is the first in a series, I must say I’ve been looking forward to reading the next installment ever since I finished it.

[The Bone Curse releases on March 27, 2018. This review is based on an ARC of this book I received from the publisher through NetGalley.]

51GOZPH3rhL._SY346_I stumbled across the author’s blog by chance while at KingMidget’s Ramblings. I was excited to see that she, like me, was a fan of Weird and Lovecraftian fiction, and I read her spot-on analysis of the short story The Repairer of Reputations, which I love. And so I decided to check out The Friendship of Mortals, the first entry in her series featuring Lovecraft’s corpse-reanimating doctor, Herbert West.

The plot broadly follows that of Lovecraft’s original episodic short story until the end, but with numerous edits, alterations and additions. It is a “reimagining” (or “reboot” in modern lingo) rather than a mere retelling. For one thing, it’s far longer. Lovecraft’s original seems like a mere outline in comparison.

Very often, when people say their work is “Lovecraftian” what they mean is that it has some names or artifacts from Lovecraft’s mythos, or perhaps that their tale concerns large alien monsters resembling sea creatures. Very few writers imitate Lovecraft’s tone, which is detached and serious. Usually these wannabe Lovecraft stories are written in the somewhat flippant manner of a Stephen King narrator, with a few references to “Cthulhu” and “Abdul Al-Hazred” thrown in.

Within a few pages of Friendship of Mortals, I was blown away by how well Driscoll managed to imitate HPL’s style. The tone, the pacing, the careful descriptions of everything from people to books to the architecture in Lovecraft’s fictional town of Arkham – all of it was there, just as in the canonical stories of Lovecraft himself. While Friendship of Mortals may take its general plot and characters from one of Lovecraft’s shorter (and generally less well-regarded) tales, its style and pace resemble his longer and more developed works, particularly The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.

This would be impressive enough on its own, but Driscoll manages another feat: she explores the psychology and backstory of not only West, but the narrator (unnamed in Lovecraft’s original, but here named Charles Milburn) and other characters of her own creation. And though the human element was something that Lovecraft, for good or ill, deliberately minimized in his stories, Driscoll examines it, and does it well, without ever becoming unfaithful to his style.

Each of the major characters—West, Milburn and Alma Halsey, Milburn’s lover– are given detailed backstories and for the most part behave in believable and consistent ways. The romance between Milburn and Halsey was particularly impressive, because Lovecraft never wrote romance. In general, one of the major red-flags that a would-be Lovecraft imitator is about to become decidedly un-Lovecraftian is the introduction of sex or romance.

But Driscoll somehow pulls it off. As I was reading the love episodes between Halsey and Milburn, I thought to myself “If Lovecraft had written romance, it would have been like this.” That might sound like a joke, given Lovecraft’s antipathy toward all emotions except fear, but I mean it as a sincere compliment: Milburn and Halsey’s affair, while being relatively explicit, still seems in keeping with the period setting, both in terms of how it is described and what the lovers actually do.

Driscoll reinvents the vignettes of Lovecraft’s serial, changing or removing certain details here and there, fleshing out the views of the sentimental and romantic Milburn and the rational, calculating Doctor West, and then bringing them, over the course of West’s increasingly disturbing experiments, into conflict. Minor characters are just as vividly-drawn as the major players, from one of West’s numerology-obsessed professors to his overbearing businessman father.

Driscoll plays down the horror and violence of the original, but the relatively little space given to the monstrous results of West’s experiments renders them more powerful as a result. It’s dark and disturbing stuff, but again, true to the spirit of the source material.

I have a few quibbles: the book is lengthy and slow-paced, which readers expecting a thriller may find forbidding. But I doubt Lovecraft fans will be put off by this, as HPL could take his time with a story as well, and part of his style is its slow, gradual pace. A feature, not a bug, in other words.

In the last quarter of the book, the psychological character-development aspect takes center stage over the plot and horror elements, which some readers may find disappointing. Milburn’s philosophical musings, while quite interesting, begin to overtake all the other components at this stage.

One other note: there is one scene in which a character uses a racial slur—it’s perfectly logical for the time and circumstances, but nevertheless it is shocking enough to see on the page that I think I ought to warn readers about it. But again, anyone who has read HPL’s own works will have seen far worse, alas.

But these are all ultimately minor points, which don’t detract much from the book’s many virtues. The Friendship of Mortals is the first in a series, and I’m eager to read the next installment. It’s certainly a must-read for Lovecraft fans, and I think it works quite well even for readers to whom things like the “Necronomicon” or “Cthulhu” are meaningless, provided they like a good psychological drama with tinges of the supernatural.

I can’t stress enough the magnitude of what Driscoll accomplished here—she took one of H.P. Lovecraft’s lesser short stories and made it into his greatest novel. I say “his” just because she imitates him so well that at times, I swear I could forget the author’s identity, and believe that HPL really had returned to flesh out his tale of the amoral re-animator and his increasingly reluctant assistant. Like Dr. West, Driscoll has made her subject live again.

One Night in BridgeportOne Night in Bridgeport is a legal thriller that follows Jack McGee, a law student who is sent to Bridgeport, California to deliver some papers concerning the purchase of some land by a large corporation. While there, he decides to have a one-night stand with a local woman, Lea Rogers. (Who, though McGee doesn’t realize it at the time, is the daughter of the property owner.)

The next morning, McGee wakes up feeling overwhelmed with guilt and regret over cheating on his fianceé and leaves without speaking to the still-sleeping Rogers. She wakes up in time to see McGee’s car pulling out of the parking lot, and immediately feels angered and hurt by his caddish behavior.

Later, she discovers that McGee is handling the purchase of her mother’s property, and her anger only increases further. In a conversation with her friend and local lawyer, Butkus Sweet, she mentions sleeping with McGee and Sweet decides that it must have been rape. After he pressures her to do so, Rogers presses charges against McGee.

From this point, things go from bad to worse for McGee, beginning with his initial decision to tell the investigators he has never met Rogers, and continuing through his trial, where many other questionable aspects of his past come to light.

The book has an almost Rashomon-like quality to it, in that we see things from different characters’ points-of-view. In addition to McGee, Paxson also shows the perspectives of Rogers, Sweet, and the Judge. (Personally, I found the Judge and McGee’s determined-but-overworked defense attorney, Tammy,  to be the most sympathetic characters in the story.)

The plot is well-paced, and the final twist that resolves the story is both set up well enough that it doesn’t feel like it came out of nowhere, but hidden well enough that you don’t see it coming. I also enjoyed the descriptions of McGee’s walks in the snow. At one point, Paxson alludes to the eerie, muffled silence that accompanies a new snowfall–I loved that, because to me it’s one of the most interesting things about snow, and not enough writers make mention of it.

My only real problem with the book was how unlikable McGee is, but I suspect that this is a pretty realistic depiction of this kind of case. Some readers might be alienated by his personality, but if you’re the type who needs someone to root for to feel engaged with a story, be patient–in the second half of the book, the Judge emerges as a very well-written, sympathetic and interesting character.

It’s the sort of book that I think can be perceived very differently by different readers, so before you read my last bit of analysis, I recommend you read it yourself and make up your own mind. I’m not only going to spoil some plot points below, but also say some subjective stuff that could color your perception of the characters. So, now’s your chance to bail if you don’t want spoilers.

Ready?

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51lvbVGJfzLThe Seneca Scourge is a medical thriller with science-fiction elements.  It follows Dr. Sydney McKnight as she finds herself in the midst of a seemingly incurable influenza pandemic. Aiding the staff at her hospital is the mysterious Dr. Casper Jones. As the pandemic spreads, Dr. McKnight notices Dr. Jones behaving oddly.

As she investigates in between treating the ever-growing patient population, Dr. McKnight gradually uncovers the shocking truth about Dr. Jones.

That’s the spoiler-free synopsis. If you don’t want to know the plot twist, don’t read after the asterisks below. My spoiler-free review is that it is a very well-paced thriller that successfully combines fairly plausible depictions of medicine and viruses in the first half with science-fiction elements in the second half. If you like either medical thrillers or science-fiction (and especially if you like both) I recommend it highly.

Now, if you want to know more detail, with spoilers, read on.

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eatingbull-book-cover-by-lance-buckley
“Eating Bull” by Carrie Rubin

I rarely read murder-mystery or thriller-type novels, especially not those without supernatural elements to them.  Stories with lots of non-supernaturally-motivated murders rarely appeal to me.  So Eating Bull was a bit of an adventure–not the sort of book I would normally read.

“Eating Bull” is the cruel nickname given to the novel’s protagonist, Jeremy–an overweight teenager who becomes the primary plaintiff in a lawsuit against fast-food companies in Ohio.  He is supported by his good-hearted but overworked mother, Connie and his nurse, Sue–a determined woman with a strong sense of social justice.

Arrayed against Jeremy, Connie and Sue are school bullies, unsympathetic co-workers, and even Jeremy’s own grandfather–an agoraphobic Army veteran. Sue faces the additional difficulty of her loving but extremely protective husband, who dislikes her risking her own safety by courting the wrath of public opinion.

In addition to all of this, a serial killer calling himself “Darwin” commits a series of grisly murders–all of them targeting overweight people, whom he deems “sheep”.

I won’t go through the plot in too much detail and risk ruining the appeal of watching it unfold. I will say that all these elements are combined very well–each chapter is told from the perspective of either Jeremy, Sue or Darwin, and all of them balance out and keep an extremely gripping pace.  For the final fifty pages or so, I couldn’t put the book down, and the ending is very emotionally satisfying.

Jeremy is very sympathetic and likeable, and Sue is an admirable portrayal of a heroic woman who nonetheless has a flaw–she tends to value her concern for Justice over the more immediate concerns for herself or her loved ones.  This is well-done, because such a character could have easily become cloyingly saintly, and Rubin does a good job of making her seem heroic and also still human.

The Darwin chapters are naturally quite disturbing, and a good example of why I don’t normally read this genre.  Not that they are badly-written–rather, that they are so well-written as to make me feel slightly sick just reading them.  The portrayal of the killer’s mental state is quite sharply-drawn–among other things, it’s one of the best depictions of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder that I have ever read.

These chapters are definitely heavy on gore, and that was a little tough for me–which is kind of funny, given that my own books have a fair amount of carnage in them.  The parts with violence against women were especially hard to take. But again, these are my own tastes, and I suspect fans of thrillers will be used to this sort of thing.

All in all, I came away extremely impressed by Eating Bull. In spite of the violence, I enjoyed the characters and the pacing. And Rubin also has a real talent for clever descriptions and almost Chandleresque turns of phrase. There were a few hiccups here and there, but overall it stacks up well against the few modern thrillers I’ve read. (Stephen King’s 11/22/63 and Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, in particular.)

I was taken aback by how much I enjoyed the book, since thrillers are normally not my cup of tea.  It was something I pondered for a while as I was reading Eating Bull: “Why am I enjoying this so much? It’s not like me.”

And then it hit me: there’s another side to the book, apart from the engaging plot.

Eating Bull‘s main theme is the problem of obesity–Jeremy is obese, Sue wants to cure the societal causes of obesity, and Darwin wants to exterminate obese people. All the minor characters, in some way or other, comment on Jeremy’s condition–some positively, some negatively–but it’s the central theme of the book.

Now, some would just use that as a cheap “hook” or gimmick to tie everything together.  But Eating Bull goes to some lengths to explore the causes of obesity.

For example, there are several scenes where Connie gets some fast-food for Jeremy to eat after she returns from work.  She knows this isn’t optimal, and is apologetic to Jeremy’s caregivers when asked about it, but explains that it’s cheaper and faster to get bad food–and as a single mother working two jobs, this is no small consideration.

There are many other examples of this throughout the book, all aimed at showing the various factors that contribute to obesity. At times, it raises some serious issues regarding how food is marketed, reminding me of the non-fiction book Fast Food Nation.

In some ways, Eating Bull is really what they used to call a “problem novel”–a novel meant to illustrate and draw attention to some societal problem. These were especially popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Many of Charles Dickens’s novels are examples of the genre, as is Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.

It’s very difficult to write a social problem novel that doesn’t come across as preachy and heavy-handed–the author has to balance all the mundane facts (and sometimes even figures) needed to make the social point with a compelling dramatic narrative that is interesting to read. (In The Jungle, Sinclair seems to simply give up towards the end, leading to entire chapters that are just lectures and Q&A sessions on Marxist theory.)

For the most part, Eating Bull avoids this pitfall, keeping the action going at a brisk pace while exploring the larger social theme through minor incidents and at well-chosen intervals.  When some detailed sociological point needs to be made, Rubin wisely has it said by Sue, for whom it seems logical and in-character.

This social aspect was really what set Eating Bull apart for me–it was something more than just an interesting page-turner.  Whereas most thrillers are normally easy to forget once you have learned How It All Works Out, this one gives you a bit more to think about.

One word of warning: if you enjoy eating chips or similar snacks while reading, well… you probably won’t while reading this one.  You may decide to opt for a salad instead, but then of course it’s harder to eat a salad while reading. And that’s to say nothing of the Darwin chapters, after which you may not want to eat anything at all…

Still, it’s a good book.  Check it out.

My mother told me about Tales of Byzantium by Eileen Stephenson, after hearing I had been reading P.M. Prescott’s historical fiction. It is a collection of three short stories, all set in medieval Byzantium. One is a romance, one is a war story, and one is essentially a piece of characterization.

Stephenson is a very versatile writer. Each story has a distinct tone to it that is appropriate for the genre of each. Personally, I liked the war story “The Red Fox” best–though that is only a personal preference matter. As Mr. Prescott can attest, I tend to prefer war stories to romance. All the characters are very well drawn and differentiated in each story.

“The Red Fox” has the most complex narrative structure of the three stories, and I think it is the most effective. It begins with a military commander arriving to tell the Emperor about a bold gamble he has made, then flashing back to recount the events that precipitated it, and then concluding with the emperor’s response. It is well paced and I liked the plot.

The final story “Alexiad” may not work as well if the reader is familiar with the historical figures involved; but I found it to be a nicely done story of the evolution of a personality. That said, the ending felt slightly rushed. It seemed like there was a lot of a build-up for a payoff that, while satisfying, could have been taken more slowly. Of the three, I think “Alexiad” has the most potential to be expanded into a longer tale.

The only quibble I have is one quite common in historical fiction: the clash of esoteric terms with modern ones. Since most of Stephenson’s characters speak in modern English, it is jarring to occasionally have ancient words like “Exkoubitores” interspersed. Obviously, this is a necessary conceit of the genre, and Stephenson was wise to avoid adding pages of parenthetical definitions, but even so it has the effect of taking the reader out of the action.

The other slight problem is occasionally plot developments are conveyed by telling, rather than showing. This is particularly an issue in the middle of the second and the beginning of the third story. It’s a problem every writer faces at some point, and it’s especially hard to overcome in historical fiction, but I felt that certain things that could have been explained in dialogue were instead simply told in omniscient narration.

However, these are minor issues, and the book is extremely enjoyable on the whole. It is very carefully edited, which is a plus–many self-published books suffer from sloppy proofreading. Not this one.

I suspect someone with a more thorough knowledge of Byzantium would get more out of the book than I did, (though it may also ruin some of the surprises) but from my layman’s perspective, it was very good indeed.